Chapter 89

I’d never learned how to ride a motorcycle, but Adel’s customized bikes had seats large enough to fit two. We quickly decided that Michel should take one, Barrett should keep his own Harley, and that I would ride together with Mila when we left. Before we mounted, I took the time to pass out earbuds to every member of the group.

These aren’t as good as the ones we’ve used in the past,” I said to Michel and Mila, “but they’ll still work.”

What’s the difference?” Mila asked. She fitted her earbud in place with only a slight grimace of discomfort.

The encryption protocols, for one thing.” I put my own earbud in as I spoke. I’d grown so used to their presence during my exclusive partnership with Devlin that I barely felt its presence. “These aren’t sophisticated enough to support anything particularly complicated.”

In layman’s terms?”

It’s possible that we’ll pick up interference,” I said. “If we end up near anywhere with a lot of radio traffic, it’ll get worse, but it shouldn’t get to a point where they’re unusable.”

Like Bluetooth?” Barrett asked.

Yes and no. For the purposes of this job, let’s just call them the same and move on. The details don’t really matter.”

Montez made a point of collecting gear and safety equipment, for when he needed to test some creation around the lot. Adel returned with heavy, padded jackets for each of us and passed them out without any complaint.

He doesn’t keep track of these,” she said in explanation. “I wouldn’t bring them back and tell you that you borrowed them, though. Think of it as a free promotion.”

Ride a potential death trap off onto the open road,” I muttered, “and you can also leave with a free set of Ginsu knives. Fantastic.”

What was that?” Adel asked. She paused before handing me my own jacket.

Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting myself in the right headspace for this.”

She gave me a measured look, shrugged, and then walked over to speak with Michel in hushed whispers about some details I wasn’t interested in.

The jacket was a little baggy around the bustline and shoulders, but it fit well enough for a rush job. Mila wore hers as comfortably as if she’d been born in it and Michel was a common enough size that his gear looked natural as well. I tried not to resent that as I fished out Devlin’s tablet and opened the program that would connect all of our earbuds into a single line of communication.

These are pretty fancy,” Barrett said. He tapped one side of his helmet with an index finger. “And you say you guys normally use better equipment than this?”

When we have the opportunity to properly supply ourselves, sure.” The tablet had enough memory to handle the communications program, but it was unwieldy. I tried to find a comfortable position, where I could hold the tablet and also not fall off of the bike, to no avail.

Barrett chuckled. I couldn’t see his face through his helmet’s pitch black visor, but I could hear the smile in his voice when he spoke. “Here. Try this.”

He reached under his seat and withdrew a plain black book bag. He tossed it in my direction and, thankfully, I caught it without fumbling. The bag was sized for him, but it only took me a few seconds to tighten the straps and slip it on. The main compartment was big enough for the tablet, with room to spare. During the ride, it would slide and shift, but that was a small inconvenience.

Thanks. I, uh…didn’t think to bring one of my own.”

It happens,” Barrett said. He shrugged. “You can get me back next time, if you really want to show your appreciation.”

I started to say something about his casual assumption of a ‘next time,’ but Michel and Adel returned at that moment. “We can go whenever you are ready,” he said, nodding to me. Adel handed him a helmet.

Mila experimentally revved the engine of our bike and, simultaneously, stared daggers at the young mechanic. Adel was too focused on Michel to notice or care about the murderous intent radiating from Mila’s direction. I wasn’t, though.

You going to be okay?” I asked, as I mounted the bike behind Mila and wrapped my arms around her waist.

I’m fine,” she said. The answer came out just a touch too quickly. Mila must have realized how she sounded because, after a second, she audibly sighed. “I’ll be fine.”

Another problem to be added to the growing pile of issues that we needed to work through. It was a minor miracle that our team continued to work so well together professionally, when we were suffering under the weight of a half dozen personal issues each. Still, I put that out of my thoughts as best I could.

Michel?” I asked. “What do you have for me?”

With his helmet on, I couldn’t see his expression. That might have bothered someone like Devlin, who was used to reading people’s thoughts through the subtle muscle movements in their face, but I’d spent my criminal career with nothing but voices and camera feeds as company.

Not enough,” Michel said reluctantly. “There are at least three different routes they could take to get out of Dallas, depending on how many trucks they were using and how quickly they wanted to get to their destination.”

I counted four,” Mila said. “But there could have been more before I got there.”

Michel sighed. “That does not narrow it down.”

Split up?” Barrett suggested.

I put my helmet on as well, expecting my field of vision to grow dimmer. Surprisingly, there was only a slight haze effect over what I could see. “That’s not an option. When we find them, we won’t have time to regroup and coordinate. We’ll just have to try them one at a time and hope to get lucky.”

The communications program finally came to life on the tablet. My earbud popped twice to tell me that it was online. “Can everyone hear me? I mean, through the equipment?”

Everyone else nodded. Adel looked curiously at us, but didn’t say anything.

Alright, then. Michel takes the lead and we follow him as closely as possible. I can’t isolate lines while we’re riding, so we’ll all hear everything that everyone else says. Let’s try to keep the comms clear, if possible.”

Roger that,” Barrett said. He revved his motorcycle a few times, apparently savoring the throaty roar that his Harley produced. “After you?”

Michel finally got onto his own bike and coaxed it to life. Mila did the same. Instead of the Harley’s deep rumble, Adel’s customized bikes produced a higher pitched whine. The chassis of the bike beneath me shook and rattled in a way that made me feel even less sure about what we were going to do.

I swallowed against my nervousness, reminded myself of the stakes, and took a steadying breath. “Michel, you’re up.”

Leaving the junkyard was a rough, uncomfortable trip, considering the limited distance. There wasn’t a proper road, or even a path, leading from the garage back out to the road. We hit bumps and divots frequently for about five minutes. Even moving slowly, taking into account our unfamiliarity with the machines, my thighs were already sore by the time we reached something resembling pavement.

From there, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Adel’s work held up well under the stress of higher speeds. The engines whined higher and higher, but the rattling evened out as we accelerated. By the time we reached the first of Michel’s interstates, I had almost forgotten my fear to begin with.

These are not bad,” Michel said into the comms.

The bikes?” I asked.

I would not have thought a body like this could safely use this much horsepower,” he said.

Someone snorted. I suspected that it was Mila, but I couldn’t be sure.

Someone’s got to ask,” Barrett said. “What exactly are you hoping to do if we even find this convoy?”

When we find it,” I said.

Sure. When.”

I decided to ignore the sarcasm, rather than waste time arguing. “We need whatever information he’s trying to secure,” I said. “But if any of his goons can identify us later on, then we’re going to have a problem down the line.”

Good thing we have these helmets then, isn’t it?” Barrett asked.

That was a stroke of luck, even if it had come about in an unintended way.

I reached out to an associate,” I lied, “and got my hands on some software that will basically bug the servers themselves. When they’re switched on, the program takes effect and we’ll be able to monitor what’s on them in real time.”

In reality, I’d written the program myself for use in far less stressful situations, but I was fairly sure it would still work. Besides, my team didn’t even need the information itself; we only needed to make it look like the Magi had attacked the Texan without provocation. If the program didn’t work, it wouldn’t cost us anything, so long as it looked authentic to anyone examining the servers later.

Barrett didn’t need to know about our true goal or that I’d been the one who created the program in question. The former might cause him to go rogue when the job started in earnest; the latter would only be another breadcrumb leading to my alter-ego as Irene Adler online. I doubted that Barrett knew anything at all about the intricate workings of the Community, but I couldn’t afford to take the risk.

Bold,” Barrett said. “Reckless, but bold. I like it.”

You’re a cat burglar,” I said. “You’d like anything that sounded reckless.”

He laughed. “Fair enough, I guess.”

Mila’s abdominal muscles tightened under my grip. She stayed silent, though. I wished that I could finagle some way to isolate lines on the run but, unless I was willing to dig around in the book bag for the tablet, that was out of the question.

The first interstate yielded no results. We found an off ramp, traversed through some abandoned back roads, and then found an exit leading to the second. As we swerved into the sparse traffic on the second interstate, I realized that I’d been unconsciously attempting to keep track of the time. The moon was a slim crescent in the sky, noticeably higher now than it had been when we’d left the junkyard. I was pretty sure that meant it was either at or nearing midnight.

We traveled down that interstate for fifteen minutes, weaving in and out of traffic as necessary, until all of the other cars fell behind us. We kept going like that for ten minutes. I was about to suggest switching off and searching for an entrance to the third interstate, when I heard a sharp intake of breath over the comms.

I see it too,” Mila said. “Sarah?”

Squinting past the haze of the helmet’s face mask, I tried to look into the approaching darkness. Years of pitch black rooms and glowing computer screens had taken their toll on my eyesight, so I was the last person out of the four of us to see the dim lights of a caravan in the distance.

Is that what we’re looking for?” Barrett asked.

It looks like it,” I said, “but I’m not sure. Can we get closer?”

In response, Michel took his bike up another gear and leapt forward in a huge, explosive burst of energy. Barrett followed suit. Mila, graciously, waited until I’d adjusted my seating and tightened my grip around her stomach, before she accelerated to keep up with the others.

As we drew closer, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking of the Texan’s convoy in the appropriate terms. It wasn’t one or two eighteen wheelers; at least a half dozen different trucks rumbled down the interstate in single file. They weren’t moving quickly, but they were traveling at a deliberate pace towards their destination. I didn’t see any cars escorting the caravan, but that didn’t mean anything about the potential security. He could easily have staffed each truck with a dozen armed men, ready and able to perforate anyone who attempted to board.

A collective gasp went over the comms from all of us, Barrett included. Michel swore in French. Mila grunted, but I wasn’t able to divine her emotions from that single noise.

I’m not one to shy away from a challenge,” Barrett said, “but I’m also not suicidal. This might be an opportunity to exercise the better part of valor, don’t you think?”

He wasn’t wrong. The smart play was obvious: retreat, regroup, take the necessary time to plan an assault on the Texan’s stronghold. Only I didn’t know where that stronghold would be and I didn’t have the time to do much planning. Barrett didn’t know about my network’s security timer, inexorably ticking away. Discovering what the Texan knew about the Community – and, judging from the size of his convoy, I was certain he knew something – wouldn’t do any of us much good if the Mouse was able to accurately identify me.

He won’t be expecting an attack while they’re on the road,” I said. I injected as much confidence into my voice as possible, which wasn’t very much. “If this cache of intelligence is ever going to be vulnerable, it’s going to be now.”

And how exactly are you planning to take advantage of that vulnerability?”

Mila’s abs tightened under my hands. I felt my own stomach perform a similar move. Already, the adrenaline was rising, flooding into my veins at an alarming speed. It was worse than it had been before and, after a moment, I realized why that might be true.

Devlin wasn’t here to course correct if things went wrong. When things went wrong. I felt suddenly sick at the thought. I couldn’t do this. It was certifiable to think it was possible, even for an instant. I’d overreached and my arrogance was going to get my friends captured, hurt, or possibly killed. I needed to call this off and figure out a way to deal with the Mouse in a way that didn’t drag everyone else down with me.

We’re going to steal one of the trucks,” Mila said in a clear voice. I heard her voice in my ear, even as I felt her back straighten. “More, if we can get away with it. All we need is something to use as a bargaining chip.”

You’re going to steal a truck?” Barrett asked incredulously. “While it’s in motion? That’s your plan?”

You’re damn right,” Mila said. “And we don’t have the luxury of convincing you or discussing the matter with you. You said you’re in, so be in. No more second-guessing.”

If Sarah says that we can do it,” Michel said, “then we can do it. With or without you.”

The comms were silent for a few seconds, and that silence was only accentuated by the high pitched whine of our custom bikes and the deep rumble of Barrett’s Harley. After an eternity, he sighed.

No more questions,” he said. “No more second-guessing. What do we do first, then?”

I’d seen the looks they’d exchanged. I wasn’t as good as Devlin at that sort of thing, but I also wasn’t an idiot. They both had their doubts about the operation, about my ability to play the role of shot caller. Yet they’d both stood up for me, without any hesitation. They were both willing to follow my orders, consequences be damned.

That didn’t do anything to quell the tide of nausea building in my gut, but it did make me lift my head a little higher. “Catch up to the rear truck,” I said. There was a little more surety in my voice than before. Not much…but still, a little more. “Not too close that they’ll know we’re targeting them. I’ll make an assessment from there.”

Barrett and Michel answered by revving their motorcycles and accelerating ahead of us. Mila and I stayed slightly behind them.

She couldn’t say anything to me without Barrett overhearing, but Mila did turn her head a fraction of an inch to one side. I imagined her looking at me underneath the helmet’s opaque visor. I nodded.

Words weren’t necessary, after a certain point. Michel and Mila believed that I could do this, regardless of their private doubts and concerns. Now, it was up to me to prove them right.

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Chapter 88

Mila’s mechanic had a shop in what looked like an automobile graveyard. We followed Michel’s understanding on the city as far as possible; when that failed, I used my GPS to guide us down the appropriate back roads until we reached the address. As soon as I saw the mound of discarded metal and rubber rising over the horizon, I knew that we’d reached the right place. I just didn’t understand how anyone could work in such an environment.

I expected something else,” Michel said.

Like what?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I do not know. Something…with better lighting, maybe?”

I couldn’t keep a little nervous chuckle from escaping. “Who knows? It might have floodlights, once we get past the gate.”

Mila herself stood at the entrance, leaning against a chain link fence with her arms crossed under her breasts. She looked up sharply at our approach and didn’t relax until Michel switched off the car and poked his head out of the window.

Took you long enough,” she said. “Why did you want to meet here?”

On the way to the mechanic, I’d looked through Devlin’s search history on the tablet. At first, he’d focused on armored car heists and the successes and failures therein. Most jobs like that went awry long before execution; the ones that survived until the actual theft customarily fell apart on the scene. The specific security protocols for armored cars were often kept secret or changed without warning, so it was almost impossible to come up with a plan that would account for every possible variable.

He’d moved on from that to a series of message boards I’d showed him a while back. Most users on those boards used code words and common ciphers to conceal their true meaning, but their general purpose was to facilitate communication between thieves and various contractors. If I’d read the codes correctly, Devlin had attempted to search for anyone attempting something similar to what we needed. From that, I imagined he would have extrapolated and exaggerated as necessary.

He must not have found what he needed there, though, because he abandoned those message boards after a while and moved into the realm of fiction for inspiration. He’d been in the middle of a script when the painkillers took effect, because that was the page open when I retrieved the tablet. And that was where I’d seen the faintest glimmers of a plan. Or, if not a plan, the barest shadow of an insane proposition that would likely lead to failure and disgrace. Which was as close to a plan as I was likely to get.

We’re going to need something fast,” I said to Mila. “And, ideally, untraceable. Is your mechanic friend trustworthy?”

Mila hesitated. “I haven’t known him to break his word,” she said slowly. “But I wouldn’t necessarily call him trustworthy. He owes me a favor, though, for whatever that’s worth.”

At last, a stroke of good luck. With my accounts tied up, I couldn’t afford to buy anyone’s silence. I could have asked Virginia to help, and she probably would have, but there wasn’t time to find her and explain the situation.

What’re you thinking, Sarah?” Mila asked.

We need to catch those trucks,” I said, “and we need to rob them before they get to whatever safe-house the Texan has set up. So we’ll need something fast enough to catch up to them.”

Alright…”

If you know where they’re leaving from, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out which roads they could possibly have taken. They wouldn’t be driving massive trucks through downtown Dallas, after all,” I said.

You’re sure you can do that?” Mila asked.

I can do that,” Michel said. “I have looked at the maps for the area. If you can give me a starting point, then…yes. I can tell you which roads would support that type of traffic.”

Mila gave him a begrudging nod, then turned her attention back to me. “Then what? We find them and run them off the road? Tail them until they stop?”

I shook my head. “No way of knowing what kind of security they’ve got in place to stop any sort of deliberate sidelining and we don’t know if they have pre-scheduled stops.”

So you want to catch up to the trucks, except we still don’t know how we’re going to get into a position to…rob…them…” She trailed off as pieces fell into place for her. Her eyes widened when the full implication hit her. “You’re crazy. Actually crazy. That’s…what?”

If you’ve got a better idea,” I said, “I am more than happy to hear it. But we’re on a short timetable, our options are rapidly vanishing, and we need to do something. That’s what you said, didn’t you?”

Mila’s mouth worked open and shut, but no words came out. After an eternity, she shook her head and mouthed a particularly foul word. “You’re committed to this?”

Unless something else comes along,” I said. “This is what we’ve got, so it’s what we’ll have to work with.”

She nodded. “Where’s Devlin?”

I smothered an irrational surge of guilt before answering. “He took some painkillers,” I said. “I could’ve woken him up, but he wouldn’t have been much use.”

Mila frowned. “A plan like this, and no Devlin to help tie things together?”

The guilt was replaced with unreasonable indignation in an instant. “He’s hurt and we don’t need him to do this, anyway. It’ll be hectic, sure, but I’ve done hectic before.”

Mila’s eyes flickered past me to Michel. The look lasted less than a millisecond, but I caught it anyway. “If you say so,” Mila said. “What are we waiting for?”

She was answered by the throaty roar of a motorcycle approaching from the distance. Even in the haze of adrenaline, anxiety, and insecurity, I had to appreciate Barrett’s sense of timing.

He rode a classic Harley Davidson, matte black and so masculine that it almost hurt. Barrett eased to a stop, then dismounted with an exaggerated grace and surety. I watched him intently, from a strictly professional standpoint, and I could practically feel the weight of Mila’s attention from behind me.

I’m here,” Barrett said, strolling up to join us with the utmost casualness and removing his pure black helmet. “What’s the plan?”

Do you have your gear?” I asked.

He shrugged. “As much as I was able to cobble together at the last minute, sure. It isn’t what I normally go into the field with, but it’ll do. Why?”

I gave him the briefest rundown of events, highlighting the limited timetable for our operation. He listened, quietly nodding at appropriate moments, and stayed silent until I finished.

You want to attempt a mobile heist,” Barrett said, when I’d finished, “without the proper planning or research, while rushed, and with total awareness of how absolutely stupid that idea sounds?”

I mean, when you say it like that…”

Barrett turned around and started walking back to his motorcycle without another word.

I took a step towards him, raising my hand in protest. “We can do this!”

He didn’t stop until he reached the motorcycle. Then, he paused, fiddled with something I couldn’t see, and lifted the seat of the bike up to reveal a hidden compartment. Barrett took out a black duffel bag and threw it onto the ground in front of me.

I was just making sure I understood the parameters,” he said, by way of explanation. “What, you thought I was backing out now?”

I stared at him, temporarily incapable of finding the right words. Mila stepped forward and took over while my mind rebooted.

There are rules,” she said, “but I’m sure I don’t have to go over those with you, do I?”

Barrett shook his head. “I’m a professional, same as you. You keep your secrets and I’ll keep mine, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the job. When we finish, we can part ways, no hard feelings or obligations. Sound fair?”

Mila grunted, nodded, and then turned on her heel to lead us past the gate into her mechanic’s domain. Michel fell in line directly behind her, which left me to bring up the rear with Barrett. He walked with the bike by his side, slowly wheeling it deeper into the junkyard.

I hate to ask,” Barrett whispered directly into my ear, “but do you actually have any idea what we’re going to do or how we’re going to do it?”

I tried to ignore the feeling of his breath against the nape of my neck. “I have a plan, yes.”

And is that plan likely to succeed?”

I didn’t respond to that question.

Past the mountains of discarded car parts and mangled sheets of metal, a nondescript garage was practically nestled in the center of the junkyard. A boy who couldn’t be older than sixteen was busily transferring parts from a fishing boat into the engine of a late model Chevrolet. The boy looked up at our approach, seemed to consider what to do, and then decided to simply return to his work.

Not a lot of security,” Barrett mused aloud.

He’s legitimate,” Mila said. “For the most part. He doesn’t really need security.”

She held up a hand to stop us and walked the rest of the distance into the garage by herself.

Montez, you still here?” Mila called out. After a few moments of silence, she repeated herself. “Montez!”

Tez went home,” the “boy” said. “Or to the bar. Not like there’s a difference.”

I blinked and looked closer as the mechanic slammed down the hood on the Chevrolet. At first glance, I’d assumed that the slim shoulders and slight frame of the mechanic signified a young boy. In reality, the mechanic was a girl, somewhere in her early twenties, with her hair concealed underneath a dirty hat. She wiped her hands against the front of her overalls and made her way over to us.

No telling when he’ll be back,” the female mechanic said. “He’s probably getting drunk, though, so I wouldn’t hold out hope of catching him tonight.

Mila walked back out of the garage and stood with us, so that we were all facing the woman mechanic. “What’s your name?”

The woman hesitated for an obvious moment, then stuck her chin out defiantly. “Adel,” she said finally.

Adel?” Mila tilted her head. “Adelita?”

Adel shrugged and her tone became vaguely defensive. “You caught me.”

Mila winced. “Old fashioned parents?”

You could say that.” Adel heaved another sigh. “Anyway, Tez isn’t here. You want something, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

Are you sure you don’t know where he is?” I asked. “Or where he might be headed? We’re kind of in a rush.”

Lady, didn’t you hear me?” Adel retrieved a filthy towel from the ground and tossed it over one shoulder. “He’s drinking. He’s been drinking for a couple hours now. Even if you could get him here – and you couldn’t – he wouldn’t be any good to you.”

That wasn’t an option. Whatever it took, we needed to catch up to the Texan’s motorcade and this was the only way we could do it. The fact that Adel seemed focused on throwing as much unearned shade as possible our way didn’t change the fact.

What about you?” I asked. “Could you help?”

Adel barked out a laugh. “You don’t want me, lady. Whatever it is you’re looking for, Tez is your guy.”

We all stared at each other for a bit. Michel cleared his throat eventually and broke the silence. “What were you doing with that car?” He asked.

That?” Adel hooked a thumb over her shoulder at the Chevrolet. “Nothing special.”

You were putting boat parts into it?” Michel pressed. “Why?”

That’s how Tez does it,” Adel said. “Said he learned it back in Cuba, but I’m just trying to wrap my head around it.”

It was the first time since we’d arrived that her words hadn’t been tinged with sarcasm or attitude.

How does that work?”

He machines these parts from scrap metal to replace bits or adapts pieces like those boat pistons for old cars, but it’s almost as much art as it is…”

She trailed off, eyes narrowing suspiciously, but Michel must have been genuinely interested in the subject. He gestured for her to continue. “As it is what?”

As it is a science,” Adel said slowly. She gave Michel a long, silent examination. In my peripheral vision, I noticed that Mila shifted her weight slightly as the examination stretched on.

I did not mean to offend,” Michel said, holding up both hands in surrender. “I was only curious.”

What do you guys want?” Adel asked finally.

Michel deferred the question to me with a gesture and a slight dip of his head. I stepped forward and tried to inject as much authority and surety into my voice as possible. “We need fast cars,” I said. “At least two of them. And we need them tonight.”

Adel snorted. “Tez is the only one with access to the books,” she said. “Doesn’t matter if you want to wait, ’cause you don’t got much of a choice.”

I think we were all hoping to avoid being put down in any sort of book,” I said.

Montez owes me a favor,” Mila explained. “He wouldn’t have made it out of Little Havana if I hadn’t gotten involved. He’d let us borrow what we wanted without any questions.”

Then he’ll have to tell me that,” Adel said. “I never seen any of you before. Cute or not, I’m not about to lose my job over some strangers.”

Michel cleared his throat at the word ‘cute,’ and shuffled his feet. He very carefully fixed his eyes on Adel and did not look at Mila’s direction.

It’s important,” I said. “We can make it up to Tez later, talk to him so that you don’t get into any trouble.”

Don’t care how important it is,” Adel said. “Tez treats these cars like his babies and he’d throw me in a compactor if I touched one without his say-so. Which he would never give.”

What about the Chevy?” Barrett asked.

That’s different. I put that one together myself, so he doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

Got anything else you put together yourself?”

Adel opened her mouth to reply, then closed it slowly. “You said Tez owes you a favor?”

Mila nodded.

And he trusts you?”

Mila hesitated briefly, then nodded again.

I might have something you could use, then,” Adel said. “It won’t be comfortable, but it’ll get you where you’re trying to go. Maybe.”

Maybe?” Mila asked.

Adel gestured for us to follow her deeper into the junkyard. We didn’t have to travel long before we reached a clearing in the discarded metal mounds. Several disassembled engines were scattered in pieces across the ground. A tarp had been hung like a tent in one corner of the space.

I got some special projects I’ve been working on,” Adel said. “High speed, like what you say you’re looking for. And, because this is my own personal stuff, you wouldn’t need to deal with Tez and his books, either.”

What’s the catch?” Mila asked. “There’s got to be a catch.”

In answer to that question, Adel walked over to the tarp and and pulled it down to reveal four…vehicles. They bore a resemblance to motorcycles, like the Harley Davidson that Barrett had arrived on, but they were too thin and light. At the same time, there was far too much exposed engine for them to be dirt bikes either.

That’s the deal,” Adel said. “You can have some of these if you promise to tell me how they handle out on the open road.”

You haven’t tested these?” I asked.

Adel shook her head. “Not at high speeds. Haven’t had an opportunity. But they’re perfectly sound, theoretically. Worst case scenario, they die on the road and you have to catch a cab back.”

I couldn’t very well tell her that the true worst case scenario could end up with us losing control of the bikes and ending up underneath the wheels of a shipping truck. I gave Mila an inquisitive look and she responded with an imperceptible shake of her head.

Michel didn’t notice the nonverbal communication between the two of us, because he stepped forward to examine the bikes. Something caught his attention and he pointed at it while directing his question at Adel. “What type of engine did you use here?”

Wanted to get my hands on a Ducati,” she said, “but we don’t see much of those. So I just modified some old Kawasaki engines to get as close as I could.”

What sort of speed do you think these would be capable of?”

She pursed her lips. “I was hoping 150 miles per hour, but that’s probably optimistic. 125, maybe 130 before things start falling failing.” She grinned. “But these babies should get to that speed faster than you can imagine.”

With these wider tires for traction…” Michel fell silent, though his lips continued moving as if he was talking to himself. After a few seconds, he straightened up and turned back to face me.

I could see from the expression on his face what he was going to say. “Michel, that’s crazy. It’s even crazier than we’re used to and that’s saying something.”

It could work, though,” he said. “And we do not have any other choice, or the time to look for another choice, do we?”

I wished he hadn’t said that out loud, but neither Adel or Barrett seemed interested or surprised.

Mila muttered something under her breath. When I looked at her, she shook her head and repeated herself audibly. “If this is something we have to do, we can either use…other resources…to get a car, or we can go with something like this. But the longer we wait, the worse our chances get.”

‘Other resources’ referred to my grandmother, missing in action for the moment. Even if I could reach her and she was able to instantly provide the vehicles we needed, there’d be a paper trail. The Texan would be able to trace it back to Virginia and, from her, down to me. We could turn a potential ally into a dedicated enemy in the blink of an eye.

Are you sure about this?” I asked Michel.

He looked over the bikes again, then nodded. It wasn’t as decisive as I would’ve liked, but it was better than nothing. “I am sure.”

I brought my own,” Barrett said. He didn’t seem to be speaking to anyone in particular. “So I’m fine, either way.”

I met Adel’s eyes. She held out a greasy hand to me. “What do you say? Do we have a deal?”

The stakes of a failed operation flickered through my mind at top speed, each image lingering only long enough for me to truly imagine how bad things could get for all of us. Then I reached out and shook Adel’s hand before I could change my mind.

Chapter 87

We talked until my phone’s battery died, about nothing in particular.  I quickly realized that Barrett and Devlin had some talents in common; specifically, Barrett was able to direct conversations towards or away from topics, almost at will.  More than once, I asked a question and belatedly noticed that his answer had been about something else entirely.  While it was irritating to be led around by the nose, it wasn’t unfamiliar, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly.

Verbal judo aside, I couldn’t resist falling into the rhythm of chatting with Barrett.  He was engaging and eloquent, in an insouciant kind of way.  For someone under the threat of assassination, he only seemed tangentially concerned about his own self-preservation.  He still took on jobs, for instance, even when the payouts for those jobs weren’t likely to help him survive longer.  He still exposed himself to insane levels of risk whenever he scaled a building or attempted some other high-risk, high-reward stunt in pursuit of a trinket or gemstone.  He still found the time to keep up to date with the happenings of the various criminal underworlds he frequented, all across the globe.

Barrett was a thrill junkie, like many thieves and hackers I’d worked with over the years.  He could have stepped away from the illicit lifestyle at any point and lived in relative luxury for the rest of his days off of his spoils.  What kept him from retiring wasn’t a need for more money, so much as a need for more challenges.  The adrenaline addiction was more pronounced in him than it was in, say, Alex or Anton, but the degree of his addiction wasn’t fundamentally different.  I suspected that he’d agreed to work with us simply because it provided a fresh, heretofore unconquered challenge.

By the time our conversation ended, I hadn’t learned anything concrete about Barrett’s life or history, but I did have a better understanding of who he was a person.  That answered some questions, left others unsatisfied, and even drew attention a few new inconsistencies that would likely bother me when I allowed them to do so.  Even in my wildest hopes, I hadn’t expected to come away with a complete understanding of the man.  A little more insight into his motivations and passions, though…there was definitely something there that I could use to get a better grasp on how he might behave in the field.

Because my phone’s battery had decided to abruptly drop from 15% to 0% in about two minutes, Barrett and I hadn’t been able to properly end the call.  I considered using my own laptop to reestablish the connection and, all things being equal, I probably would have done so if someone hadn’t knocked on the room door before I could reach my desk.

It is me,” Michel said.  “Are you, uh…decent?”

I opened the door and gestured for him to enter.  “I’m a shameless criminal,” I said, “and therefore a long way off from decent.  But I’m dressed, yes.”

He smiled, entered, and took a seat at the edge of the bed.  “How are things?”

As good as can be expected, I guess.”  I plopped down next to him, tilting backwards so that my head fell into a mass of pillows.  “Where’s Mila?”

Following a lead,” Michel said.

She sent you back?”

He shrugged.  “Apparently.  I know better than to question her when she had made up her mind.  She is like you, in that.”

In my opinion, the only things that Mila and I had in common were purely physical.  And that we both thought Sam was adorable, but that was neither here nor there. 

Anyway.  She said that she will be able to find her own way back to the hotel,” Michel said.  “And I did not think I needed to drive around in vain for the rest of the night, so…”

No need for explanation,” I said.  “It’s your room, too.  I don’t think we’ll be able to talk my grandmother into booking separate rooms.  Even if we could do it, she’d have a lot of questions that I wouldn’t really want to talk to her about.”

Assuming that we need more rooms like this, you mean?”

Right.” 

I’d allowed myself to start assuming that the Texan would have exactly what we needed: a virtual road map to the locations of the Community members, as well as a full dossier on the Mouse.  I reminded myself, for the umpteenth time, that the Texan was a step on the way to success, not the entire staircase.  If it were so easy to uncover the identities of elite hackers, everyone would have done it.  The Community, as it existed, would never have been able to form, in the first place. 

No, it was more likely that we’d discover another breadcrumb to follow and that breadcrumb would less to another, until we eventually ran down the Community members and dealt with the Mouse.  There were a few weeks left in the countdown, and it’d be tight no matter what we did, but I knew in my heart of hearts that things would ultimately end up coming down to the space of a few seconds.  Before we reached those last few seconds, we’d have to travel. 

In short, there would be other rooms like this.  As long as my grandmother thought that I was married to Michel, she’d keep trying to push us into romantic situations at every opportunity.  It was just another difficulty we had to deal with.

I can go somewhere else,” I said.  “I realize I’ve been hogging the room since we got here and everything.”

I stood up to leave, perhaps for the lobby downstairs with decent wireless, but Michel stopped me.  “No, no; you are fine.  I can stay with Mila tonight, if you’d like.”

Oh?”  I remembered the way Mila had placed her hand over his without a word and, a moment later, recalled that Michel was very interested in her.  “Oh.  Have you guys, uh…I mean, if you don’t mind me asking, but…”

I trailed off, too embarrassed to finish the question.  Michel blinked twice before he understood.

It is not like that,” he said.  “We…enjoy each other’s company.  I think that is all that she will be interested in, unfortunately.”

And you’re okay with that?”

He sighed.  “I would rather have her as a friend than nothing at all.”

We stood there, silent and awkward, until I forced out a cough and changed the subject.  “Can you tell me about this lead she’s pursuing?”

Michel shook himself out of his thoughts.  “Hmm?  Oh, yes.  I am not certain what it is that set her off, but we were speaking with her mechanic friend about the area.  What sort of vehicles were being upgraded, how many he had personally dealt with…that sort of thing.  I think that she was attempting to learn about what cars the Texan was using to transport his servers and information.”

Makes sense,” I said.  “It’d be a lot easier to find them if they were graciously rolling through the city in a fleet of identical black SUVs.”

Her friend said that the cars going into and leaving his shop were basically the same as ever,” Michel said.  “If anything, he said that there were fewer cars being borrowed in the last day or so.”

Fewer cars?  That didn’t make sense.  If Mila’s information was correct, and the Texan had intentions of securing his hoarded intelligence, he’d need some way to move everything.  Assuming that he stored everything digitally, as opposed to encoding it in the mind of an esoteric child, he’d at least need to borrow a few trucks from the local mechanic.  Or, I supposed he could simply buy them from somewhere.  Either way, there should have a noticeable change in the ecosystem.

What did Mila do?”  I asked.

She looked around the shop for a bit and then asked me to step outside,” Michel said.  “I…did not want to see what she would do, so I went.  After a few minutes, she came back out and told me to come back to the hotel.”

That’s all?”

She left before I could ask her any questions.”

Do you have your phone on you?”

Michel shook his head. “No. Mila left hers here, at the hotel, so I left mine with her, in case she needs to call us for something.”

That wasn’t right. Mila couldn’t have gone the entire day without her phone and she hadn’t gone actually gone back upstairs after we met with Barrett. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to find a golden thread that connected the disparate bits of information Michel had provided. When I found nothing, I sighed and opened my eyes again.

Anything else?”

He shook his head. “Do you think that something is wrong?”

I don’t know,” I said. “I think that something feels off, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”

I checked my phone. It had only been on the charger for a few minutes, but it was one of the new wireless devices that worked at high speed. Already, my burner phone’s battery was at fifteen percent. Not enough for a long chat, but certainly enough to make a phone call or send a few texts.

I elected to try the latter option first. I typed out a quick message to Mila – What’s going on? – and hit send. Michel hovered in the corner of the room, not speaking but also not leaving. My uncertainty must have been infectious. We waited for ten minutes, not saying a word, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Mila hadn’t responded to the message.

I took the phone off of the charger and dialed her number. The line rang and rang. Just when I thought it was going to reach her voicemail, Mila answered the phone. Immediately, a storm of sound from her end of the line sprang into existence and I reflexively pulled my own phone away from my ear.

Sarah!” Mila’s voice was loud enough to be heard by both me and Michel, even though she wasn’t on speaker phone. “Sarah, are you there?”

I went ahead and switched over to speaker phone as Michel rushed in behind me, looming over my shoulder like a gargoyle and casting his shadow all over my desk. “Mila, I’m here. What’s going on? Why’d you send Michel back to the hotel?”

The answer didn’t come immediately. I used the interval to sort through the sounds coming through Mila’s handset. Steam, or something like it, hissed sharply at regular intervals and…were those engines? If so, they were engines on a far larger scale than anything the team had thus far used for transportation, the massively oversized truck included. That said, there was something familiar about what I heard.

I got it wrong,” Mila said finally. She sounded a little winded. “He isn’t just moving some of his data storage to a safer location.”

Then what’s he doing?” I asked. The question hadn’t passed my lips before, in a moment of horror, I realized that I already knew.

He’s taking everything,” Mila said. “All of the information he had stored locally at once.”

That was why the Texan hadn’t been borrowing vehicles from the local mechanic. First, because he wasn’t going to be in any position to return those cars later. But second, and more importantly, the mechanic didn’t have cars large enough to suit the Texan’s needs. If he’d spent years collecting the information necessary to secure his position as an information dealer, he wouldn’t need sedans and hatchbacks to transfer his hoarded information.

He’d need eighteen wheelers. Massive trucks capable of storing huge servers and traversing large distances without stopping. Trucks exactly like the ones I’d heard in my parent’s factories and warehouses during my childhood…and like the ones I finally recognized, coming from Mila’s end of the connection.

When?” I asked. I stood up, frantically looking for something to wear. My heartbeat gradually began to accelerate. “When is he moving?”

A hiss of steam and a grinding sound as oversized tires crunched across gravel blocked out anything Mila might have said.

I spotted a pair of jeans that were clean and a plain black t-shirt. Snatching them both up, I stepped into the bathroom and hurriedly pulled everything on. While I was there, I snagged a pair of sneakers and something to tie my hair out of my eyes.

What did she say?” I asked Michel as I stepped back into the room proper.

His widening eyes told me the answer more succinctly than his words ever could. “Tonight,” he said. “She says that she found the depot where he is leaving from, but that there are too many people for her to deal with on her own.”

And we still don’t know where he’s going,” I said to myself. “Not that it matters, because we don’t have the time or resources to go chasing after him indefinitely.”

That’s what I said,” Mila called out over the speaker phone. “What do you want me to do?”

A moment of horrifying, panicked indecision hit me like a fist to the gut. “Michel,” I said after an instant, “get us much information as you can from her. I’m going to get Devlin.” I snatched three keycards – every one of us had mirrored cards for everyone else’s rooms, just in case – and made sure that I had Devlin’s.

He nodded and moved over to the desk, rummaging around in the drawers for a piece of paper. I left him there and rushed down the hall to Devlin’s room, tying my hair up as I went. When I reached the door, I practically banged my fist against its surface several times.

No response came from the other side.

An entirely different fear rushed from deep within me, right alongside the anxiety I was already feeling. I fumbled with the keycards until I found the right one and unlocked Devlin’s door.

Devlin, Mila’s at a truck depot and she says the Texan…is…”

I trailed off. Devlin wasn’t hurt…or, more accurately, he wasn’t hurt any worse than I already knew about. He was laying on the couch with a tablet face down on his chest, snoring lightly as he slept like the dead. A bottle of painkillers was open on the coffee table just within his reach, next to a half empty bottle of water.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened. Devlin had been portraying an image for Barrett and for the team. His arm must have hurt far worse than he’d let on, but situations hadn’t allowed him to do anything for that pain. So, when we’d parted ways earlier and he’d come up to his room to study, Devlin must have decided that a few painkillers would help take the edge off. He just hadn’t taken into account how effective those painkillers would be.

In any other circumstance, I might have found it cute. Right now, I wanted to yank him upright and slap him into consciousness, consequences be damned. But that wouldn’t do anything and I knew it. Even if I could bring him back to the land of the wakeful, he wouldn’t be able to think clearly with those drugs in his system. A momentary hesitation or the wrong call in an instant of crisis could be disastrous. Worse; if he made that call and got one of us hurt, he’d never forgive himself.

Unfortunately, that placed the burden of responsibility squarely on my shoulders. I took a deep breath, sent conflicted thoughts of concern and frustration at Devlin’s sleeping form, and then hurried back to the bedroom. Inside, Michel had returned the phone to the charging station. He turned as I opened the door and wordlessly held out a pad of paper with Mila’s location written in bold, cursive lettering.

Are you still there?” I asked.

I’m still here,” Mila replied. It was quieter on her end now. “Did we make a decision?”

Are you in a place where you aren’t going to be spotted?”

I haven’t been so far,” she said. “Can’t say for sure if someone’s going to decide to get inquisitive, though.”

There wasn’t anything we could do for that, unfortunately. I just had to hope that we’d get a tiny break or that Mila could take care of herself.

They’ll be gone by the time any of you can get here,” Mila continued. “If that’s what you’re thinking, I mean.”

It wasn’t. “Stay there,” I said, “and stay out of sight. We’re coming to you.”

There was an audible hesitation on her part. I couldn’t be sure what thoughts were going through her head, but I was certain that uncertainty was high on the list. “Roger that,” she finally said.

I hung up the line and turned to Michel. “Get whatever you think you might need and meet me downstairs. We don’t have a lot of time to get in motion if we want to have any chance of pulling this off.”

Sarah,” Michel said. “Where is Devlin?”

Sleeping it off, unfortunately.” I scrolled through my recent calls, found what I was looking for, and pressed send. “We’ll have to do this one without him.”

How?” Michel asked.

It was such a simple question and I had no idea how to answer it. So, I ignored it while the phone rang.

Barrett answered after only two rings. “If we’re going to be talking all night,” he said, in a languid tone, “maybe we should meet somewhere and actually chat in person.”

I cut him off before he could get any further into his charm offensive. “Gear up,” I said, “and get ready to work. I’m texting you an address right now.”

An address?” His inflection implied certain…lascivious activities. I put those out of my mind immediately and focused wholly on the problems ahead.

We’re going in tonight,” I said. “Right now. Meet us at this address as soon as you possibly can.”

I disconnected before he could say anything in response to that. Michel froze in the middle of stuffing equipment into a gym bag and met my eyes.

Neither one of us needed to say anything, but I felt like Devlin would have made some effort to break the tension. Since I was apparently stepping into his shoes for the evening, I though it appropriate to at least make an effort.

Buckle up,” I said. “It’s looking like it’s going to be one of those nights.”

Chapter 86

On the ride back to the hotel, every attempt to speak with Devlin merited nonverbal, monosyllabic responses. If I wanted to look at his silence in a charitable light, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that he’d withdrawn into his own thoughts to start sorting through the variables of our coming job. But his body language didn’t seem introspective, so much as sullen. When I caught Mila’s eyes, one of her eyebrows twitched minutely upwards. For her, that was like sounding air sirens of alarm.

I partially expected Michel to fill the awkward silence, but he focused his attention entirely on the road. Apparently, the collision from a day ago had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. He was gripping the wheel so tightly that his knuckles might have turned white, if such a thing were possible.

I found my mind aimlessly drifting from one topic to another. It lingered on a given problem just long enough for me to start asking relevant questions before shifting to something entirely unrelated. There were just too many things I didn’t know and, without access to my computer network or the Community, no real way to acquire that information. Unless the Texan happened to have a trove of information dedicated specifically to the problems occupying my thoughts, of course…but I didn’t think that was likely.

I was so lost in the maze of my own thoughts that I barely noticed when Michel stopped the car. We’d reached the hotel and I didn’t have any memory of the trip itself.

I need to do some research,” Devlin said immediately.

Research? You?” I asked.

Either he ignored the joking tone or he was too in his own head to notice it. “I remember hearing about a few groups that tried to rob armed trucks in transit before,” he said. “Nothing specific and I’m pretty sure they all botched the job in different ways, but it could still give us a good starting point.”

Why didn’t you mention that last night?”

I didn’t think about it last night,” Devlin said. “The idea just occurred to me. Is that alright?”

I snapped my mouth shut before my instincts led me to retort. Something was bothering him. I almost asked him right there, but a tiny voice at the back of my mind told me that we wouldn’t have a productive conversation in front of witnesses.

Fine by me,” I said. “Do you need anything from me to do that?”

Devlin shook his head. “I should be able to find public records on what they attempted and I absolutely can find what they did wrong.”

If you need anything more specific than that,” Mila added, “I think there might be a few…I guess you’d call them historians in the underworld.”

Devlin smiled. It wasn’t a big one, as his smiles went, but it was remarkable how the flash of teeth seemed to break through his mood like a sunrise. “Michel and I knew someone like that in France, actually. Do they keep late hours? I’ll probably be researching for a while before I have any specific questions.”

Mila shrugged. “I’ll put out feelers. Discreetly, of course.”

Of course.” Devlin reached for the nearest door handle and paused, his hand hovering less than an inch above the handle. “Unless you had something else you needed me to do, Sarah?”

Me? No, nothing. Go, my child, and be free.”

He turned the grin my way, summoning a fresh wave of confusion at his extra mercurial moods as of late, and exited the car.

What about you two?” I asked, when I decided that I wasn’t going to figure out Devlin while sitting in a rental car. “Any plans I should know about? Ideas, comments, concerns?”

When we’re anywhere other than Dallas,” Mila said, “I think we should take Devlin to a real doctor, underworld or otherwise.”

Alarm shot through me like a spike of ice. “What? Is he hurt worse than you thought at first?”

Mila shook her head and held up a hand to forestall any further questions. “No, he’s fine. I’m sure of it. But I just want to hear another doctor tell me how long it’ll be before he’s back in action. I…don’t like this new guy.”

You don’t trust him, you mean?”

I don’t trust anyone,” Mila said immediately. “Present company tentatively excluded.”

I chose to take that as a compliment. “Then what is it?”

I don’t like him,” Mila repeated slowly. She almost seemed uncomfortable admitting her reservations.

We all started this together,” Michel explained, presumably on Mila’s behalf. “And our pasts are mostly tied as one, because of what we have been through together. This Barrett is…something else entirely.”

Mila pointed at Michel and nodded. “Yes. What he said.”

I understand what you mean,” I said. “But he’s our only shot, unless you know someone else who can help on short notice.”

I thought she might mention the Twins, but I was proven wrong when she sighed and shrugged. “We’ll just have to deal with him, I guess,” Mila said, frowning.

This just feels wrong,” Michel said. “Very wrong.”

Internally, I agreed with them. I didn’t know Barrett like I knew Devlin. I didn’t know anyone that closely. Without those years of experience, of close contact, I couldn’t be sure that our styles would work together.

It is what it is,” I said.

Michel made a disappointed sound in his throat before visibly pulling himself together and focusing on the task at hand. “If Mila can find out what roads they are taking at any point, I can draw up a list of possible ambush points.”

That’ll be difficult,” Mila said. “Not impossible, but definitely difficult. The more questions I ask, the more likely it is that someone’s going to put two and two together.”

Vary your sources and don’t get into specifics,” I suggested. “Just figure out where he theoretically might go. We can scout out the locations over the next few days to confirm anything.”

She gave me a look that said I know what I’m doing, but didn’t voice that sentiment out loud for some reason. “Will do. Do you need Michel for anything right now?”

I shook my head. “Nothing comes to mind.”

Good,” Mila said. “I’m going to borrow him for the rest of the day, then. There are a couple of people who might respond better to someone like him asking the questions.”

Someone like him?” I raised an eyebrow.

A man,” Mila said. She shrugged. “The underworld here hasn’t kept up with the rest of the world in a lot of ways. That’s just one of ’em.”

I blinked. “Huh. I hadn’t really thought about that. Devlin usually handles it, so…huh.”

Mila allowed me a handful of seconds to contemplate that before she cleared her throat. “If you want us to get started anytime soon, then…”

Oh!” I took off my seatbelt and stepped out of the car. Mila raised two fingers to her forehead in salute just before Michel pulled away.

I considered going back to the spa and, after a moment, decided against it. Instead, I went to my room, changed into sleepwear, and tried my grandmother’s cell phone. The line rang through to her voicemail. I called CJ and his line did the same. They were probably together somewhere else or – shudder – sequestered in their own hotel room.

There were other people I could speak to. Alex was as close a friend as anyone could be, but I didn’t know offhand what time it would be in Germany. I’d been avoiding a long overdue conversation with Doctor Bridges for weeksnow, even as I’d steadily accumulated reasons why such a conversation was necessary, but I wasn’t in the mood to parse my illegal activities into a metaphor that I could tell her. My sister…but no, definitely not my sister. That would be an entirely separate can of worms and I couldn’t afford the distraction.

On a whim, I searched around my room for a bit until I found the business card Barrett had given me. I examined both sides of the card, noting once more the elegant gold embossing and the stylized paw, and weighed the merits of what I wanted to do.

This entire fiasco was a mess of my own making. The Mouse was hunting me and, if I’d taken the time to really think about the situation, I probably could’ve figured that out before he’d forced me to lock down my entire network. It wasn’t necessarily my fault that Devlin’s arm was broken, but he probably would have been able to take some downtime to heal before it broke if I hadn’t put us all under the axe. And involving Barrett had been my suggestion.

If there were some opportunity to learn more about the man, perhaps to alleviate the concerns that all of us seemed to share, wasn’t it my responsibility to take it?

Before I could talk myself out of it, I took out one of my burner phones and dialed Barrett’s number. The line rang…and rang…and then went to one of those generic voicemails that only restated the phone number I’d called and asked me to leave a message.

I frowned and disconnected. There were a thousand ways a chat with Barrett could go wrong and only one in which it could go well for us. It was probably for the best that he’d missed the call. What would I even talk to him about? What questions would I ask? What –

The phone rang and the icon for a video chat appeared on the screen. Panic shot through me. At the outside, I’d been hoping to talk to the man, not see him. And certainly not for him to see me. I’d already changed into sleeping clothes! My hair was practically a rat’s nest!

I ran a hand through my hair, trying my best to sort it into something decent. Appearances, like Devlin had said, mattered. The Lady would never have been caught dead in any state other than exquisitely presentable. If I was going to do this, I could at least avoid embarrassing myself.

When I felt I’d made myself look as human as possible, I took a deep breath and accepted the call.

I’d expected to only see his face in the video chat and maybe the tops of his shoulders, depending on the angle.  Instead, I saw him naked to the chest standing in front of the camera.  He wore a towel around his waist, which hung just low enough to make my breath quicken.  Droplets of water beaded on his arms and stomach.

Sorry,” he said.  His tone and the cocky smirk on his lips told me that he wasn’t all that sorry.  “Just got out of the shower.  I would’ve called you back later, but I didn’t know if something came up that I needed to know.”

My mouth opened and closed on thin air while my brain struggled to put together some coherent sentence.  Irrationally, I started to turn away from the smartphone, but I caught myself before actually going through with it.

This didn’t need to be a video chat,” I finally managed to say.  I couldn’t be sure, but I felt like my voice had squeaked at the end of that sentence.

Phone calls and text messages are boring,” Barrett said, taking a seat at the desk.  His new position placed his haphazardly placed towel out of my field of my vision which, in turn, allowed me to push any number of salacious thoughts back into the dark recesses of my mind where they belonged.  “You can’t really tell anything about someone without looking at them while you’re talking.”

Is that why you wear a mask when you’re working?”

Sometimes,” he admitted.  “Other times, I just do it because I’m a sucker for tradition.  What kind of a cat burglar doesn’t wear a black ski mask and turtleneck to steal things?”

What kind of a person answers the phone half naked?” I countered.

In fairness,” Barrett said, “I didn’t answer the phone half naked.  I called you back half naked.  There’s a big difference.”

And that is?”

One of them was on purpose.”  He reached for something to one side of the camera and, when his hand returned to view, he held a short glass with a golden brown liquid inside.  Barrett sipped at the drink.  “If we’re having banter, I guess that means nothing critical came up since the last time we talked?”

No, I just…I mean, no, we aren’t having banter.”  I paused, tried to collect my thoughts.  “Also, no, nothing came up.  I just wanted to, uh…talk.”

It managed to sound stupider out loud than it had in my head.

You just want to talk,” Barrett repeated.  He placed a gentle emphasis on the last word, implying his disbelief without actually stating it bluntly.  “About what?”

I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose until my thoughts returned to their proper clarity.  I’d only reacted to the sight of Barrett’s chest that way because it had surprised me.  He was hardly the first shirtless man I’d ever seen and I, Sarah Ford, was capable of carrying on a conversation without allowing my hormones to run roughshod over my common sense. 

My team doesn’t think we can trust you,” I said, when I felt like speech was within my grasp again.  I still made an active effort to avoid looking any lower than his nose, though.  “Or…well, it’s more accurate to say that they aren’t sure what your motives are.”

Barrett sighed and reached for a t-shirt.  I caught myself sighing as well when he pulled it on.  “That’s a fair question, I guess.  Don’t really know how I’m supposed to help you with that, though.”

You could tell me what your motivations actually are, for starters,” I said. 

Information,” Barrett said immediately.

I shook my head.  “Not from this particular theft.  In general.  What do you want in general?”

Other than wealth and beautiful women?” Barrett asked.

My cheeks grew warm again, but I ignored them.  “Yes, other than those two things.”

Barrett’s grin faltered, fading into neutrality.  I could almost feel the mood of the conversation turn darker.  “I just want to find my partner,” he said after a pregnant silence.  “Figure out what I have to do to put an end to all this.  Dodging assassins is one thing, but what bothers me the most is wondering why they’re attacking at all.  That my partner would actually hire people to kill me is…”

Frightening,” I supplied.

Sure,” Barrett said, “among other things.  How much do you have to hate someone to hire a killer?  Did he always feel that way?  Is it something I did wrong?”

A tear appeared in one of corner of his eyes.  He quickly wiped it away.

You’re…awfully open about this,” I said.

Why wouldn’t I be?” Barrett asked.  “I lie and steal when I’m working, sure.  But the two of us aren’t on the clock right now, so…”

I started to protest that I was, in fact, always on the clock…except that wasn’t true.  Normally the team would working at insane speeds and frenetic paces to cobble together a plan to take down our targets.  But Michel and Mila had basically gone out on the town together and Devlin wasn’t speaking to me, for some reason.  There simply was no work for me to do at the moment.

Except for getting to know Barrett.  That had been my original intention, hadn’t it?  As a temporary member of our team – and one who’d joined because of my express recommendation/order – it was my responsibility to find out as much as I could about the new cat burglar beyond the “tall, dark, and handsome” aesthetic he seemed so proud of.  A moment of emotional honesty could give me clues I’d need later on.

It couldn’t hurt anything, at least. 

Let’s say we aren’t,” I said cautiously.  “So.  Tell me about yourself?”

Barrett’s grin returned.  He leaned back in the chair, exposing just a millimeter of exposed, flat stomach.  “So,” he said.  “What do you want to know?”

Chapter 85

By popular vote, we met with Barrett at an underground restaurant – literally underground, not just connected to the criminal lifestyle – in hopes that we could avoid any attacks or assaults while in transit. Maybe the assassins weren’t deliberately tracking us or maybe they’d decided to wait for a better opportunity; either way, we encountered no trouble making our way across town, settling into the restaurant, and picking out a long table where Mila could put her back to a wall and keep her eyes on the door.

Michel took a spot to Mila’s left without any discussion. There were four or five more chairs left at the table: one each at opposite ends of the table and two more across from where Michel and Mila sat. Devlin looked at me, looked at the table, and then dragged one of the chairs from the side of the table over to the end.

Why thank you,” I said, dipping my head graciously.

Devlin and I took our seats, side by side at the head of the table, and prepared to wait. He’d explained this part to me on the way over to the restaurant. When making deals or alliances with underworld figures, Devlin took great care to control appearances. Posturing was a negotiating tool in its own right, especially when the more customary methods of measuring one’s reliability – there were no Yelp reviews for professional thieves – simply didn’t apply. Our team was efficient and effective, but we couldn’t point to our previous successes without potentially giving up the whole game. If we wanted to get Barrett to agree to our crazy plan, we needed to portray unity and competence, and we needed to do it in a way that couldn’t be denied.

Virginia probably would have understood the sentiment, on a bone-deep level. It sounded like so many boardrooms and shareholder meetings she’d tried, and failed, to interest me in when I’d been a child. I’d always preferred working on my own, straining my own talents and skills to accomplish the mission, without having to expend worry on what it looked like to other people. The solitary lifestyle of a hacker had always fit me perfectly.

Devlin shifted his weight and, without seeming to be aware of it, started to drum out the rhythm of an Irish jig on his cast. Well…the solitary lifestyle had almost always fit me perfectly.

We didn’t have to wait long. We’d set the meeting for one-thirty and arrived at the underground restaurant a half hour early. Accounting for traffic and the possibility of…anything, really, the team had still wanted to be there before Barrett to get our positions, run over any last minute adjustments, and prepare ourselves. Barrett, perhaps thinking along the same lines, arrived at one-fifteen.

He wore designer jeans with gold-colored pattering running up one leg and an expensive button-up shirt, open down to that little hollow at the base of his throat. A single strand of gold hung around his neck, glinting in the light from the bare electric bulb dangling over the entrance. Barrett strolled into the restaurant like a cat, relaxed yet somehow still tense. He looked like Mila did, when she sensed a fight on the horizon.

Barrett swept his eyes across the room and we weren’t exactly hard to find. While looking for a place to meet, I’d specifically chosen a restaurant that wasn’t widely known for its lunch crowd. Located in the middle of Dallas proper, I’d correctly guessed that this particular restaurant relied on the happy hour crowd for most of its business. That gave us some measure of privacy, without completely shutting out civilians. I didn’t want to give someone the bright idea of throwing a Molotov cocktail down some stairs and solving all of their problems at once.

Great minds think alike,” Barrett said in his confident, smooth baritone. “Better to get everything sorted out right away and not waste any time, am I right?”

Mila’s face was completely blank: no emotion, no anxiety, and no interest. She appraised him with utter dispassion. “We’ll want to discuss terms,” she said.

Barrett assessed the layout of the table, shrugged, and picked up the chair at the opposite end of the table. He carried it a short distance and then set it down so that he sat across from Michel which, conveniently, put him right next to me. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s discuss.”

Devlin had adopted his own poker face, although I saw a flicker of irritation break through the mask as Barrett settled into place. “This isn’t a typical job,” he said. “We’re not doing this for profit or anything like that.”

Then what are you doing it for?” Barrett asked.

Our own reasons,” I said. “You want to find out whatever information you can about why someone’s trying to kill you; we’ve got our own goals.”

Personal goals,” Mila added.

Message received,” Barrett said. “Although, it’s going to be hard helping you if I don’t know what you’re looking for. What if I stumble across something that you’d need but don’t recognize its importance?”

Since I still held out hope that the Texan would willingly come to the negotiating table after our false flag succeeded, that wasn’t as much of a concern as it would otherwise have been. Still, the team and I had discussed this eventuality and come to a possible solution.

Earbuds and mini cameras,” I said. “I have a small supply that we can use for the purpose. If you spot something that we might be able to use, then one of us will point it out and you can grab it. You don’t necessarily need to know why it’s important to us.”

Those same earbuds and miniature cameras would allow us to keep an eye on him.  What he found and what he took would both be useful things to know about an individual with motivations we couldn’t yet guess at.

Barrett faked a shiver of excitement. “So many mysteries and secrets,” he said. “Now I’m absolutely going to want to figure out what you’re keeping to yourself.”

I wouldn’t,” Mila said. “That kind of information could be bad for your health.”

Is that a threat?” Barrett asked.

Mila shook her head.  “You’d know if it was a threat.  I’m just giving you fair warning.”

Which, in every way that mattered, was true.  If Barrett thought that the assassins currently pursuing her were a problem, he really didn’t want to find himself at odds with the Magi and their resources.  Just knowing about their existence could prove deadly.  Although…we’d known about them for over half a year and hadn’t been killed yet.  We’d come close, sure, but our teamwork had kept us ahead of the metaphorical sword, thus far.

That was as a full-fledged member of the team, though, with all of us working as a unit and without any secrets.  I wasn’t ready to offer Barrett that same type of access to my life, or to theirs. 

Worrying about the details isn’t going to get you anywhere worthwhile,” I said.  “Your best – our best bet – is to focus on the job.  If we get what we want, you’ll get what you want, and we can all go our separate ways.”

Barrett didn’t appear pleased with that brush-off, but he accepted it with a grudging nod.  “Let’s talk about the job, then.  I assume you fine people have come up with some plan to get whatever it is that you’re after?”

The information we want is being transported from one location to another,” Devlin said.  “We know about the first, but not the second.”

What’s the security like at the first location?” Barrett asked.

Intense,” Devlin said.

How intense?”

Intense enough that we’re not even going to attempt to hit there,” Devlin said.

But you don’t know about the second location, so…”  Barrett paused, tapping his index finger against his chin in thought.  When he landed on an idea, he grinned.  “You’re going to try to steal what you’re after while the transport is on the road, then?”

I kept my face expressionless, to the best of my ability.  Normally, Devlin was the only person capable of leaping immediately to the proper conclusion without any context or assistance.

That’s what we’re thinking,” I said.  “Is that something you’re capable of?”

Barrett considered the question for a few moments.  “It’s not something I’ve ever done,” he said eventually.  “Not that it’s outside of my skillset, but I do my best work at night.”

He winked at me and it took me a second to understand the double entendre.  My cheeks grew warm and I sent up a silent prayer of thanks that my blushes weren’t visible to anyone.  “Is that a yes or a no?”

Depending on how you’re planning to pull this off?”  Barrett shrugged.  “It’s a tentative yes.  I’d want to know more before I commit entirely to something like this.”

What else do you need to know?” Devlin asked.

The usual, obviously.”  Barrett held up a hand and counted off points on his fingers.  “Infiltration and exfiltration, for starters.  How much data is being moved and in what format; any security that might be in the vehicles; how long do we have to get what we want before we pull out and call the whole thing a wash.”

We knew absolutely none of that.  Devlin’s fly-by-night attitude towards planning, coupled with my own meticulous nature on a conceptual level, had gotten us through the tense jobs we’d undertaken at the Lady’s behest.  Again, though, those weren’t successes that I could reasonably expect any other team, working with any less cohesion, to pull off.

We’ll get that to you,” I said.  “There are still aspects we need to rework.”

So you don’t want my input on the plan itself?”  Barrett asked.  “I am something of a thief, myself.  I might have some insight you wouldn’t otherwise have come up with.”

We’ve got someone to handle that aspect,” Devlin said.  His response came out quick and clipped, with more than a fair amount of harshness.  It was notable enough that Michel’s eyes flickered momentarily in Devlin’s direction and the corners of the Frenchman’s mouth turned minutely downward.

Fine, fine,” Barrett said, holding up both hands in the universal sign of surrender.  “If you can get me something to look at beforehand, that’ll have to do.  Can you tell me when you’re thinking about doing this, or is that also need-to-know information?”

Mila cleared her throat.  “Our sources tell us that we’ve got less than a week before the move is complete,” she said.  “But we also don’t know if those sources are accurate or if they’ve been misled.  What we do know is that the move is in process right now.”

So we’re thinking that we should go sooner rather than later,” Devlin said.  The harshness was gone from his voice but not, I noticed, from his eyes.  “Three days, at the outside.  Probably sooner than that if we can get everything together in time.”

Barrett whistled.  “Three days?  You want to take on a job like this with only three days’ worth of planning?  You either really want that information or you’re all literally insane.”

It’s not the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” I said. 

I couldn’t help but preen a little as I spoke.  Sure, Barrett was a cat burglar with all of the inherent coolness such an occupation presented.  But my team was, thus far, undefeated in some of the most challenging jobs I’d ever heard about.  I didn’t doubt for a moment that all of us, in peak condition, could succeed at something like this.  Whether Barrett could do the same…that was still up in the air.

Barrett leaned back in his chair, thoughtfully tapping his finger against his chin again.  “Three days, huh?  That’s an awfully tall order, without an appropriately tall amount of reassurance?  How do I know your side of this isn’t going to botch the operation and get us all sent to jail?”

Are any of us in jail now?” Michel asked in a soft voice.  I didn’t think that he’d deliberately pitched his words to sound almost dangerous, but the effect was still pronounced.  “If we have performed jobs like these before, and you have not even heard about it, does it not seem that we do know what we are doing?”

Knowing Michel as I did, I couldn’t take his dangerous tone seriously at all. But Barrett hadn’t worked with the Frenchman as long as I did, nor as closely. As far as the cat burglar knew, we were all lifetime professionals and, with Devlin’s coaching, that was the image we strove to present. Of the four of us, Mila was obviously the muscle. Devlin’s position as the ground-level specialist might not have been readily apparent, but he was definitely a talker. And I was…presumably, my role in our capers wasn’t something he’d been able to figure out. It would have been reasonable for him to assume that either Devlin or myself operated as the mastermind, though.

Michel was something entirely different. He’d joined us at the meeting, so he couldn’t have just been a hired wheelman. And he hadn’t displayed any notable skills or predilections in the short time Barrett had been around him. It was entirely possible that Barrett had no idea what Michel did. Speaking rarely and carefully choosing his words, Michel might seem far more intimidating to a stranger than I would have expected.

Barrett didn’t necessarily seem intimidated, but he did lapse into silence. He gave Michel a long, smirking examination, as if he could read the truth of his words with nothing more than his eyes.

You’re serious?” Barrett asked me after an eternity.

We’re serious,” I said. “I don’t know who you’ve worked with before or how good they were, but I can promise you this much.”

Devlin picked up the thread, finishing my thought as if we’d planned it. “If there’s any group of people who can pull something like this off, you’re looking at them.”

I expected Michel to say something, but he stayed quiet. Maybe he had intended to portray himself as a strong, silent participant. Mila was the one who finished our impromptu chorus. “So are you in?”

A slow smile spread across Barrett’s face. It took several seconds before he was openly beaming. “With a presentation like this? How could I turn down the opportunity?”

With effort, I kept myself from visibly showing my relief. We needed Barrett to do the job. Any version of any plan we came up with would require somebody with Devlin’s skillset and the ability to react to changing situations on the ground. He could provide remote assistance, via the earbuds and cameras, but he couldn’t effect any changes until he healed. I could plan. I could pretend to play his role, when the situation allowed me to revise and try again. But I couldn’t do what he did when it mattered.

Barrett might be able to do that, though. Not to fill Devlin’s shoes, of course. But perhaps he could keep them warm.

I need to get my supplies in order,” Barrett said, standing up from the table.

How long will that take?” I asked.

Twelve hours, barring something unforeseen.”

Mila made an impressed sound in her throat. “That quickly?”

I do a lot of work on location,” Barrett said carefully. “It’s taught me to keep my list of necessities short and easily acquired. Besides, it’s not like I can go to the usual shops right now.”

That was a point I hadn’t thought about. We could at least purchase some of the equipment we needed, through Virginia. But someone in the underworld had tried at least twice to kill Barrett. He couldn’t just swing by the Speakeasy and put out feelers without potentially alerting his assassins to his location.

That’ll be fine,” Devlin said. He hesitated, then offered Barrett his hand. “If you’re working with us on this, then you’re a part of the team. Our team. At least, for the moment.”

Barrett looked down at Devlin’s hand and made no move to shake. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

It means,” Devlin said, “that we’re in this together. No one decides to cut out when it gets bad and everyone makes it back in one piece. Understand?”

Michel had sounded mysterious and Mila, as always, had seemed like her violence was only barely kept in check. But Devlin sounded downright territorial. He was practically growling. I’d never heard that note in his voice before and it made me feel…apprehensive? Worried? Intrigued?

Confused, I decided. It made me feel confused.

For the briefest moment, Barrett’s near-constant good humor disappeared. He met Devlin’s eyes and nodded. “Understood.”

He left the table, then the restaurant, without another word. The four of us stayed there, trying to ascertain each other’s thoughts without seeming to do so.

We should order something,” Devlin said finally. “We don’t want anyone to remember us as those people who took up a whole table and didn’t order anything.”

I wasn’t really hungry, but I nodded anyway. The majority of my mind was trying to figure out what had caused Devlin to speak like he had. The various wheels and gears in my head spun in vain, though, because I couldn’t come up with anything concrete even after we’d placed orders and begun listlessly picking through our food.

By the time we left, I’d come to one solid conclusion. If the interaction between Barrett and Devlin was indicative of anything, robbing the Texan wasn’t even my biggest concern anymore.

Chapter 84

The following morning, as the team gathered for a status update and for breakfast, Mila started with the first good news I’d heard in what felt like forever.

I know where he lives,” she said. “At least, I know where he stays. He probably lives somewhere else.”

I swallowed a mouthful of eggs, washed it down with some coffee, and raised an eyebrow at her. “I’m listening.”

The Texan is deeply connected to Dallas,” she said, “to the point where it’s almost weird. Even the low level people in the local Underworld know who he is, even if they don’t have any plausible reason to need his services.”

Devlin’s cast covered most of his arm, from above the elbow down to his wrist. The only part of his arm uncovered were his fingers, which he wiggled in Mila’s direction. “Was it magic?”

She snorted back. “The locals talk. That’s probably something he cultivated. But chatty people work both ways. When he orders supplies for a construction project, the whole Underworld buzzes about it for days. When he has to hire a few trucks and some muscle to start transferring equipment off-site…”

Well, that’s…something,” I said. “Not necessarily something good, though. You think he’s running?”

Mila shook her head, as she dumped approximately a pound of sugar into her own coffee. “Not likely. If I had to bet, I’d say he isn’t going anywhere. But there is something he wants to move somewhere safe.”

Devlin used his free hand to scratch at his face. He’d only grown the thinnest possible covering of facial hair over the last few days; not enough to form a respectable five o’ clock shadow, but apparently enough to itch. “Did these talkative birdies of yours happen to know how long it’s going to be until he finishes this moving project?”

Unfortunately, no. I get the impression that he’s using different people for different aspects of the job to make sure that no one can be a point of failure.”

It’s smart,” I said. “And it fits with what we saw at the Speakeasy. He’s trying to escape something or someone.”

Michel sipped his tea and furtively looked left, then right. When he was convinced that no one was in earshot, he spoke in a soft voice. “The Magi?”

The problem with the Magi – and, by extension, the Lady – was that they existed everywhere and, simultaneously, nowhere. At any given moment, an agent of the Magi could be around the corner or in the same room; at the same time, they might have nothing at all to do with any of the regular skulduggery criminals typically engaged in. It was impossible to plan around that potential obstacle. At any given moment, a force with an unknowable quantity of resources could step in and escalate any engagement to the breaking point. Or, they might not.

It was exhausting, both physically and mentally.

Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not. We can’t assume that they’re responsible for everything.”

Although it is useful to keep it in mind,” Devlin added. He paused momentarily to down some orange juice. “Michel, after we finish up here, why don’t you focus your efforts on possible escape routes. Through the city, out of town…hell, out of the state if you can pull it off. If the Magi aren’t involved, or if they don’t get involved, no harm. It’s good practice. But if they do show up and start throwing their weight around, we need to have a way to get out of Dodge before things get too hot.”

Michel considered the question for a few seconds before responding with a serious nod. “Should I, uh, make certain that this plan will work for all of us?”

All of us, sure,” Devlin said.

He stressed the word just enough to make the subtext unmistakable. Barrett was a short term solution to an immediate problem. If we found ourselves staring down the barrel of serious trouble, Devlin would of course attempt to rescue everyone. That was just in his nature. But he’d start with us before moving on to any extraneous additions to the team. And if someone had to get left behind…

It was a logical conclusion to reach and there were parts of me – the most pragmatic, levelheaded parts that had always been bothered by Devlin’s noble tendencies – appreciated that he was able to grasp our realistic limitations for once. We couldn’t save everyone. We shouldn’t try to. The stakes were literally deadly serious and the old rules didn’t apply anymore.

But it was still surprising to see the stark expression on Devlin’s face, to read his resolve in the way his shoulders were set. Something fundamental had changed in him, that much was certain. But had he changed as a result of our successes in London? Or had it been in prison, years before that? Or had that change come as a result of our divorce?

Even worse: what if he hadn’t changed at all? What if I was only just now discovering new aspects of the man I’d once called my husband?

I shivered and shook the thought off. Not the time, not the place, and not the situation.

Back to the problem at hand,” I said, rapping my knuckles against the table to draw everyone’s attention back to me. “We knew that he was only going to be here for a couple of days anyway. Could this be something he’d already been planning and we’re just seeing patterns where none exist?”

Possible,” Devlin said. He scratched again at his wispy facial hair. “Does it really change anything, though?”

It might,” I said slowly. “Do you think it doesn’t?”

I think that it gives us an opportunity,” he said. “We want to rattle his cage, make him think that he’s got enemies gunning for him so that he starts reaching out to potential allies, right?”

I nodded. “Your point?”

If he’s packing up and hauling up stakes,” Devlin said, “it stands to reason that he’s already got enemies. Or he’s at least already concerned about the possibility. I’ve known people that deal in information, like the Texan…although, admittedly, not at the same level. There is always someone gunning to take out the competition or to absorb whisper networks into their own organizations.”

I plucked the thread from his conversation and examined it for weak links. We’d already been planning on attacking under a false flag. If the Texan was already paranoid, he’d be even more vulnerable to that sort of deception. We would only have to launch our assault, make some noise, and retreat. He’d draw the conclusions all on his own.

It had merits. It sounded easy. Which was, of course, what made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.

Mila,” I said slowly, “what else did you find out?”

She sighed and picked at her chocolate chip waffles. “The place he’s moving out of? It’s basically a fortress. The locals were more than happy to outline the measures he’s taken to protect his property. Guard patrols, closed circuit security systems, a tacit agreement with the police…it’s basically like Hill’s mansion, but worse.”

Could we play it like the last leg of the London job?” I asked.

We don’t have enough people,” Devlin said. “Just the four of us, in a city that’s essentially serving as an extension of his own forces? Not plausible or possible.”

We stewed over that problem in silence for a minute or two. If Mila didn’t know where he was moving to and we didn’t have the time or manpower to hit him where he was, I couldn’t see a plan that might yield success. With or without Barrett’s assistance, we still needed some sort of approach that wouldn’t get us gunned down or arrested. And we couldn’t come up with that approach if our only choices were assaulting a fortified location or seeking out another site with security we knew nothing about.

I looked at Michel. He was biting down gently on his fork and tracing lines across the tabletop with his finger. Presumably, he’d already started in on Devlin’s task, figuring out which streets led out of town and what routes might serve as choke points to lose pursuers. Devlin really had given him the perfect job, suited specifically to his skills and inclinations. With the slim amount of time we’d spent in town so far, Michel had managed to create a mental map of the city’s streets and roads. If there was anyone else who could so thoroughly grasp the way a city was laid out, I certainly didn’t know them.

That thought triggered another, and I blinked as things settled into place within my mind. An idea, if not a plan, began to form around that nucleus and I spoke before my better judgment could interrupt the process.

What if we didn’t do either of those things?” I asked.

We can’t give up,” Devlin said immediately. “This is just another puzzle to solve, not a reason to throw in the towel.”

I waved a dismissive hand, stopping him from going any further with his thoughts. “No, that’s not what I meant. We can’t hit him where he is and we don’t know where he’s going. But we do know how he’s getting there. Or at least, we can know. Michel, you could figure that out, couldn’t you?”

Michel shrugged one shoulder and nodded. “There are many different routes he could take,” he said. “But it might be possible to get an idea, perhaps. Why?”

Why don’t we just do the job while he’s in transit, then?” I asked.

Everyone around the table stared at me, in silent unison. It was enough to make me doubt myself for an instant. Then, I gathered up my confidence and plunged ahead.

Look,” I said, “it’s not a great idea. It’s a terrible idea. But it is something that he won’t be expecting. And besides, it’s not like we need to actually get away with anything. The whole purpose of this is just to make him think he isn’t removed from the power struggles happening in the underworld. It could work…couldn’t it?”

I wasn’t able to keep the plaintive note from creeping into my voice, but the rest came out just fine.

He’s using a caravan,” Mila said into the silence, after an interminable amount of time. “Not a lot of sublety, but definitely strength in numbers.”

It’d be like trying to hit an armored car,” Devlin said. “If the guards have been ordered to shoot to kill, it would be even worse. But…but it might be possible.”

But not plausible?” I asked.

When was the last time we did anything plausible?” Devlin asked back, grinning at me as he did so.

That was as close to a vote of confidence as I was likely to get. Michel would do what we asked him to do, if it was within his capabilities. Mila would follow orders as well, inasmuch as those orders didn’t contradict with her overriding responsibility to keep the rest of the team safe. But Devlin…this was a Devlin sort of plan. I needed his approval more than I felt comfortable admitting, even to myself.

What would we need to pull off something like that?” I asked him.

Devlin gave the question some serious thought. “There’s too many ways to get away from us on the open road,” he eventually said. “So the first thing we’d need to do is come up with something that would keep them traveling down the streets we want them to.”

Car accidents?” Michel suggested.

Not too many,” Devlin said. “We wouldn’t want someone to get suspicious. And I don’t know how many cars we’ll be able to procure on short notice.”

I thought about the employee garage at the local affiliate. “We can get a fair amount,” I said. “Although I’d rather not total them all out, if at all possible.”

Wouldn’t need to do all of that,” Devlin said, “just as long as the accidents are spectacular enough to draw attention, but not so extravagant that the drivers decide to just make the trip on a different day or take a different route.”

Michel nodded to himself. “Smoke, but not fire.”

Devlin snapped his fingers and pointed to Michel, beaming in the Frenchman’s direction. “Exactly that.”

What else?” I prompted.

Tools,” Devlin said. “Even if the plan isn’t to steal anything, it might be better to take something. Just to get a sense of what he does and doesn’t already know.”

I thought the plan was to get him to tell us that willingly,” I said.

People lie,” Mila said. “Or they hide things. People like the Texan do that, more than most.”

Plus,” Devlin added, “he doesn’t know what we’re actually after. He might have every intention to help us and just not think to tell us what we really need.”

I started to object again, purely on reflex, but stopped myself as I thought through his point. Thus far, the Texan had demonstrated an uncanny ability to divine things from disparate points of data. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that he might be able to figure out our true goal, simply from the questions we asked. That might be a good thing – I was sure that he could be an invaluable ally – but we didn’t know his allegiances. Knowingly or not, he could very well yet another agent of the Magi and revealing ourselves might be all it took to activate him.

Or he might have nothing to do with them. Our questions might lead him to ask questions of his own to the wrong people. If that happened, death would be the preferable outcome. I’d read through the tortures the Magi had used against Devlin’s former partner, Asher, and I wouldn’t wish those evils on my worst enemy. Especially not against someone who I genuinely seemed to like.

Stealing from a potential friend seems like a bad idea,” I said. “Not necessarily wrong, but…certainly not a move likely to engender feelings of camaraderie.”

We’re not in this to make friends,” Mila said.

And,” Devin said, “if we do this right, he won’t even know we were involved. We can make it up to him later on, but our mission has to take precedence.”

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the mission to save me from the Mouse’s technical wizardry or about discovering the real names of the Magi. I also wasn’t sure that there was any real difference between the two, at this point.

Let’s say we go with your idea,” I said. “A way to direct traffic, tools…what else would we need? Like you said, there isn’t any way to get the kind of personnel we used in London.”

If we can get this caravan going the way we want them to,” Devlin said, “and we have the tools to get into the trucks to take a peek at whatever he’s moving…there’s really only one other thing we’d need to pull this off, assuming that everything goes our way.”

I scoffed, loudly and deliberately. “It won’t. But what’s the other thing we’d need?”

It was Michel who spoke. “A thief,” he said.

Instinctively, I looked to Devlin. He met my eyes for a long moment, then raised his injured arm.

I heaved a sigh and forced myself to break eye contact with him. “We need a thief,” I repeated to myself. Then, after a deep breath, I raised my head.

Mila,” I said, “get us all of the information you can find out about this caravan. What type of cars, what they might be traveling, any additional security measures they might have waiting in the wings.”

Got it,” Mila said.

Michel, draw up a map of the city, as best you can. Devlin and I will have to go over it to find the best place to strike.”

He nodded silently.

Devlin and I made eye contact once more, before I could avert my eyes. He held that eye contact while I took a deep breath and committed fully to the insane course of events that the next day would surely turn out to be.

And I…” I stumbled over the words, took a steadying breath, and tried again. “And I guess I’ll have to call our new thief.”

Chapter 83

Hours later, after I’d finally had an opportunity to sleep off the after-effects of adrenal overload, I met with Michel, Mila, and a plainly unhappy Devlin in the hotel bar. It was just past happy hour, so we were alone except for an aging bartender and a busboy who sporadically appeared to clear away empty plates and glasses. I’d suggested holding the war council in one of our rooms – the black haired woman from the Speakeasy was still on my mind – but Devlin and, surprisingly, Mila had overruled me.

You do realize that anyone could be listening to us talk, don’t you?” I asked them, after we’d given the bartender our orders.

If there’s someone already in his hotel,” Mila said, “then they’d have to already know who we are.”

In which case, it wouldn’t really matter anymore,” Devlin said. “Unless you happened to bring something to detect listening devices in our rooms, they’d be able to check up on us no matter where we were.”

The two of them didn’t seem at all disturbed by that possibility, which only exacerbated my own feelings of paranoia.

Devlin scratched idly at his new cast, then sighed. “Plus,” he said, “we need to make sure that you aren’t invisible for too long.”

How exactly does that make sense?” I asked.

No matter what the cops said, there’s no way that your name doesn’t end up in some report on someone’s desk,” Devlin said. “As soon as that happens, we’re on a timer until the press gets ahold of it. When that happens, it’d be better for them to think you’re just vacationing instead of…oh, I don’t know, working on some major corporate deal for your parents.”

I don’t have anything to do with the business,” I said, more or less automatically. I’d repeated that line to reporters, socialites, potential suitors, and my own extended family members often enough that this repetition was pure reflex.

I know that,” Devlin said, “and you know that. But it’s easier for us to give the press something to digest – namely, that Sarah Ford is visiting the area with her grandmother for some sort of charity event – instead of hiding away and inviting speculation.”

It seemed a bit arcane to me but, as I considered it more, I began to grasp the shape of Devlin’s argument. There would be reporters, if I didn’t get out of the city fast enough. When they arrived, we needed to feed them a plausible story that wouldn’t raise any questions. As far as the magazines, tabloids, and newspapers were concerned, I’d always been unconcerned with the family business and far more interested in charitable causes. They’d accept that, I hoped, and then get bored with my general lack of media appeal. Hopefully.

Do we know of any other possible reason for me to be in town?” I asked. “Specifically, I mean?”

Devlin shrugged. “Not yet, but I’m sure we can figure something out later. That’s assuming Virginia will go along with the story, of course.”

She will,” Mila said. “For now, at least, she’ll back our play.”

Good to know,” Devlin said. He quieted down as the aging bartender returned, delivering an assortment of plates to the table. When the man retreated to his post behind the bar, Devin picked up his own thread. “Speaking of that…what is our play?”

Michel and Mila looked at each other, then at me. What was that about?

We’ve got a rough outline,” I said, sparing a side glance at the bartender. He was too far away to hear us, but I lowered my voice anyway. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. “But the details are still…spotty.”

Alright,” Devlin said, “what details are we missing?”

A location, for one thing.” I took a moment to consider my phrasing. “If we’re going to get any work done while we’re here, I need to know what areas actually need our attention.”

Devlin raised an eyebrow. “I’d be willing to bet there are people in the area with the information you’re looking for. Mila?”

I don’t have as many contacts here as I used to,” Mila said. “People in my line of work have a…let’s say that they have a high rate of attrition.”

Devlin gave her a wry smile and gestured for her to continue.

Mila returned the grin. “That said, it’s possible. From what I’ve picked up, the…client…isn’t a very private person. Not like other people we’ve worked on before, at least.”

I picked apart the metaphor to divine its meaning. “Are you serious? He’s just…publicly available like that?”

He’s not in the Yellow Pages or anything like that,” Mila said, “but he also doesn’t go out of his way to keep his details an absolute secret. I imagine it’d be hard for him to get any work done if no one knew how to contact him.”

But where to contact him? He’s okay with that information just being out there?”

As far as I can tell?” She shrugged. “Let me make some phone calls. Michel and I can take a ride through some of the local hangouts tonight.”

Then we’ll have to pick that one up later on,” Devlin said. “What else?”

Supplies, obviously,” I said. “We’re running low on…just about everything. I can replenish some of it from garden variety stores, and some of it I can fabricate without too much trouble.”

What about the local shops?” Michel asked. “Could you get what you need from them?”

Yes and no,” I said. “In general, sure. Before we leave, I could probably stock up most of what we’re missing. But I couldn’t get any of those things before the job. Not if we want it go the way we’re hoping, at least.”

Michel furrowed his eyebrows as he tried to figure out my meaning. Mila touched him on the elbow and spoke in a low voice. “We’re hoping to keep this particular job a surprise,” she said. “And the individual in question is particularly good at figuring our surprises. Purchasing our tools here is only going to make it easier for him to track down the buyer. Namely, us.”

Can you write up a list of what we have and what we’re missing?” Devlin asked me. “For the duration of this contract, we’re going to be working at a disadvantage. Probably better for us to know exactly what resources aren’t available, now, rather than figuring it out while we’re in the field.”

I opened my mouth to agree, but stopped as I realized several things in rapid succession.

First: Devlin was taking an outsized role in this planning session. It wasn’t like he normally abstained from the sessions, or that he stayed quiet, but this was the part of the job which normally fell under my purview. In regular situations, he limited himself to comments, questions, and suggestions while I sketched out a vague flowchart for what needed to be done and the best way in which we might do it.

He’d been acting differently for a while now. Even before our brief disagreement in Atlanta, when he’d found out what information I’d neglected to tell my family, things had seemed…off, between us. It hadn’t affected our professional relationship, thankfully; we worked as well together as we ever had. But off of the field, when we had the opportunity to talk and discuss instead of acting in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had shifted. I couldn’t talk to him about now, in front of Mila and Michel, though. I wasn’t even sure I could talk to him about it at all.

Second: Even with my limited understanding of anatomy, I couldn’t imagine a situation in which someone might have their arm broken in multiple places, and yet somehow remain fully conscious and rational. Pain medicine was practically designed for exactly those types of situations. Yet, there Devlin sat, picking at his food with his free hand and only grimacing occasionally. Mila kept shooting looks in his direction that seemed almost…not quite maternal, but certainly concerned.

Third: Devlin had said when we were in the field, in reference to the coming job. The implication there was concerning and, potentially, explained the previous two discrepancies.

Mila,” I said, “you didn’t tell him, did you?”

She shook her head. “Seemed like something you’d want to handle.”

I bit back a sharp reply. In truth, she was probably right. I’d made the call to invite Barrett, in Devlin’s place, and it probably should fall to me to inform him of that decision. Of course, accepting that responsibility as my own didn’t make me any more comfortable with it.

Can you two, uh, give us a second?” I asked.

Michel nodded eagerly, almost knocking over his chair in his eagerness to get away from the table. At least Mila had the decency to take her time, as if she wasn’t fleeing ground zero for a potential explosion.

We need to get another car anyway,” Mila said. “Preferably something with a little weight to it, in case those hitmen decide to take another shot at us.”

I doubted that. From what we knew, it seemed more likely that the hitmen had seen an opportunity to take out Barrett and we’d only been collateral damage. But I appreciated her attempt to conceal the real reason for their departure. It wouldn’t work, of course, but the effort was still nice.

When the two of them had exited the bar, leaving only Devlin and myself at the table, he cleared his throat and looked pointedly at the now-empty chairs. “What, exactly, was she supposed to tell me?”

I ran through a half dozen openings before deciding that there wasn’t really any way to phrase my thoughts without potentially offending him. I decided to be blunt. “You can’t be a part of this. Not like you’re used to, at least.”

Excuse me?” Devlin managed to stress the first word to the breaking point without raising his volume. “What exactly does that mean?”

Your arm isn’t just broken, Dev,” I said. “Without an X-ray, we obviously can’t be sure, but every sign points to it being damn near ruined. How are you going to function in the field with that kind of an injury?”

The same way that I always have,” he said immediately. “Just because we’re dealing with a disadvantage doesn’t mean we give up on the game entirely.”

You won’t be ‘giving up.’ You just wouldn’t be…as active in the field as you’re used to.”

You want me to be comms? Seriously?”

His tone implied that ‘comms’ was a position beneath him. I knew that he didn’t actually think that to be true, so I took a deep breath to tamp down my temper before responding. “You can call it that, or ops, or whatever you’d like. But you know exactly what you’d tell any of us in the same situation. I’m only making the call that you’d want me to make.”

Devlin closed his eyes and silently mouthed the numbers all the way up to ten. Then, he repeated the process in reverse. When he finally opened his eyes, he wasn’t any less upset, but I could see that he was making an effort to suppress any snap recriminations.

You can’t do this without me,” he said. “That’s not my ego talking, it’s just objective fact. Michel’s better than he was, and he might be good enough to take on this kind of job in the future, but right now? He’ll need someone there to guide him through the finer points of the job. And Mila?”

Not the right skillset,” I said for him. “I know. I thought through all of that already.”

Then what? You just go into this without a specialist and hope for the best?”

There was so much incredulity in his voice that I couldn’t keep a little biting sarcasm from my own. “Actually, I think that’s what we’ve been doing every single day since London: crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.” I paused. “And we’re not going in without a specialist.”

Devlin opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything. It hung open while his brain connected the dots, working in reverse through the events of the day, until it arrived at the correct solution. “You didn’t.”

I didn’t have a choice, did I?” My question sounded a little more desperate than I’d intended it to, so I modulated my voice before continuing. “You’re badly injured. Neither Mila nor Michel is trained to handle this kind of work, and I absolutely don’t have any idea what I’m doing. And we can’t wait for you to get better; we’re already hoping that the Texan didn’t change his plans to stay in town for the next three days. I had to make a call.”

And you didn’t think I’d want to have a say in it?”

You were drugged up on endorphins and painkillers, Dev,” I said. “We couldn’t wait for you to get clearheaded and besides, I think it’s perfectly obvious that this was the only choice we could possibly make.”

He grumbled something under his breath that I couldn’t make out. “You don’t know anything about him, Sarah. We don’t know anything about him.”

We know that he’s under attack from someone,” I said. “That makes him…if not desperate, at least willing to make a deal. And we can keep him from finding out anything we don’t want him to know.”

I wasn’t quite sure if that was true. All we knew about Barrett, so far, was his prowess as a cat burglar and the fact that he was surprisingly good in a fight. He might be a lip reader or a talented conversationalist or, hell, a psychic in disguise. But he was also our only chance, on such a short timeline, and I’d learned enough to realize that I had to make do with what I was given.

Devlin slouched down his chair, scratching once more at the cast over his broken arm. “And you expect me to…what, exactly? Sit back and watch while the rest of the team puts themselves in danger?”

I bristled at the comment before I could help myself. “Is there something wrong with that?”

He shook his head wearily, seemingly unaware of the insult he’d been about to throw my way. “No, of course not. But I’m not built for that. I’ll be useless at long range. My whole thing is about seeing the situation, on the ground, and making calls on the fly. How can I do that from wherever you’ll be set up?”

Cameras and communication,” I said. “Same as we did it in London, when you couldn’t risk being spotted on CCTV. And it’s only right here, this one time. You’ve done a good job with Michel and, between the rest of us, I think we can find a way to succeed here. Do you really not think the same?”

He was quiet long enough that I had to ask myself if I’d misread his faith in our other team members.

No,” Devlin said finally, “you’re not. Dammit, but you’re not.”

Seriously,” I said, “they can handle this. With the two of us in their ears, and Barrett taking care of ground level decisions this one time…they can handle this.”

I hope so,” Devlin said. Judging from his volume and how he’d lowered his head before speaking, I assumed he’d intended that silent prayer to be for his ears alone.

We’ve got time until we do this,” I said. “Regardless of who’s involved, we still need information and we need to figure out a plan of approach. We’ve got the most experience here, so we need to work together to create something so foolproof that no one could possibly mess it up.”

Devlin snorted. “You know what happens when you build a foolproof situation? Someone builds a better fool.”

How could anyone improve on perfection?” I asked, punching him lightly on the shoulder.

Ha. Ha ha.” Devlin enunciated the syllables and provided awkward pauses between each one, clearly to make a point. “I don’t…I don’t trust him, Sarah.”

We’re professional thieves,” I said, “working at the behest of a mysterious woman whose name we don’t know to expose and identify the masterminds behind an organization so powerful that they erased their very existence from the public eye. But a regular thief sets off your trust alarms?”

Not a thief,” Devlin said. “A cat burglar. There’s a difference. Thieves work with crews, so they’ve got to do their best to keep something of a positive reputation. Cat burglars…they’re only about themselves, every time.”

I hadn’t known that, but the knowledge didn’t change the calculus of our situation. We needed an experienced thief to guide us into the Texan’s house, and to help us plant evidence of the Magi in our wake. Without Devlin, Barrett was the only possible choice. Wasn’t he?

We can handle it,” I repeated.

Devlin nodded, slowly. He didn’t voice any more complaints, but I knew him well enough to read the displeasure on his face like a book.

I know you can,” Devlin said.

A lie, and not a particularly good one. But what other choice did we have?

Chapter 82

It was the middle of the day and I desperately needed to go to sleep. We’d only been out of the hotel for a few hours, but the confrontation in the park coupled with the car crash had spiked my adrenaline to unsustainable levels. Almost as soon as we weren’t in immediate, mortal peril, I started to crash. I barely managed to stay semi-conscious during the car ride back to the hotel and, in all honesty, I couldn’t be sure that I hadn’t drifted a bit anyway.

Michel and CJ helped Devlin out of the car and into the elevator, leaving me and Mila outside with my grandmother. I had no idea what to say. I could scarcely connect stray thoughts into coherent ideas, let alone form entire strings of words into sentences and conversations.

I’ve got experience with breaks,” Mila said. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or my grandmother.

Virginia responded as though the sentence was directed at her, which suited me fine. “You’ve got experience?”

It’s a bodyguard thing,” Mila said. “You’d be surprised at what tricks you pick up on the job.”

Yes,” Virginia said, “I absolutely believe that I would be. You don’t have to do that, though. We have amazing physicians on staff. They don’t normally do this kind of thing, but if I make a phone call…”

Mila waved away the rest of Virginia’s thought. “It’s not a problem. Really. It won’t take me long to splint the arm. He’ll need a cast, to keep him from accidentally making the injury worse than it already is, though.”

Virginia looked like she was going to protest again, but she saw something in Mila’s expression or heard something in her tone. Either way, she sighed and shook her head. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that you can make a cast, too.”

With the right materials?” Mila shrugged, a little too casually. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can. If not, there’s always the internet.”

There’s always the…no, you know what? Nevermind.” Virginia sighed and hung her head. “Fine. Just tell me what you’ll need and I can have CJ go pick it up for you as soon as your friend is settled in.”

Michel can do it,” Mila said quickly.

Virginia held up her hand now, forestalling any further protestations before Mila could make them. “CJ can go with him. The two of them can take care of the shopping. Your friend will be asleep, if he knows what’s good for him. That means the three of us can have a long overdue conversation.”

My attention, which had been wandering in and out of the conversation, snapped back to the moment. There wasn’t any conversation that Virginia might want to have, in the wake of a car crash and an attempted assassination, that wouldn’t run headlong into topics I was trying, poorly, to keep to myself. In my drained state, I couldn’t be sure what answers I might give or how I’d react if she pushed me. But, at the same time, I couldn’t dodge the conversation, either.

Give him the shopping list,” I said to Mila. “I’m going to take a shower and change, Virginia. Unless you need to talk right this second?”

Virginia gestured to the hotel’s front door and the elevator beyond. “I’ll be in the spa,” she said. “Come down whenever you’re finished.”

I left without saying anything to her or to Mila. Mercifully, the elevator was empty and I rode up in silence. Inside my room, I stripped off my sweat-soaked clothing on the way to the shower, dropping the individual articles en route. I only stopped walking long enough to turn the water on before I stepped naked into the spray and closed my eyes.

The rhythmic sound of the shower was almost enough to lull me to sleep on its own. I fumbled around to turn down the water temperature, hoping that the shock might jolt me back to full awareness, and was marginally successful. I still wasn’t thinking at top speed and connecting thoughts to actions took longer than I would have liked, but at least I could begin to understand the situation we found ourselves in.

Devlin, out of commission. In his place, an unknown quantity in the form of one cat burglar who apparently had considerable problems on his own. A limited time frame in which to frame the Magi for an attack on the Texan, so that he might be willing to point us in the direction of the other missing Community members. My grandmother, gradually working her way closer to discovering more about my life than I wanted any family members to know. And, looming over all of the other problems we’d amassed in the last few weeks, the inexorable countdown to the moment when the Mouse gained access to all of my closely held secrets.

We were under attack from what seemed like a dozen different angles. Every time I tried to focus on one thing, I ended up making two or three problems worse; when I tried to handle those, I only exacerbated our problems attacking from another avenue. If there was an easy solution, I couldn’t see it. Any move I made could be the wrong move, the worst move, and I couldn’t predict what fresh hells we might be stumbling headlong into.

I was supposed to be the one who saw the long game, understood the field of play, and made certain that everyone was in a position to snatch success out of thin air. The reckless shot-calling was Devlin’s specialty, not mine. But Devlin…he was drugged now and wouldn’t be able to help us in the field for the foreseeable future. With him removed from the field, did that mean I had to step up and fill his shoes while playing my own part? Could someone else on the team play that role, freeing me up to consider the longer game?

Mila was a better choice for field commander, on paper…except that, in action, she was too aggressive. She was at least fully aware of that shortcoming, and actively worked to mitigate it, but that didn’t take it away.  If we found ourselves with our backs to the wall, she was more likely to shoot and smash her way out than to contrive some clever, last minute plan.  Sometimes, that worked.  More often than not, it only escalated matters to a tipping point. 

Michel was too inexperienced and hesitant to run things.  He was surprisingly quick on the uptake, absorbing skills from Devlin almost as fast as they were presented, but there was so much about what Devlin’s abilities that came only from long years of practice.  There was even more that came from somewhere inexplicable: a natural talent for subterfuge and skullduggery that no amount of training could replicate.  Michel could fill in when it came to infiltration, but he wasn’t going to be able to fill Devlin’s shoes.

Neither could I, of course, but I couldn’t let that stop me from trying.  If I didn’t get my act together, we were all going down.  That much was undeniable.  The only thing that remained uncertain was whether or not I’d be able to rise to the challenge.

I stood in the shower for ten minutes, long after the sweat and grime of the day had been rinsed off.  When I finally emerged, I didn’t feel particularly better.  Sam blinked his huge eyes at me from on top of the dresser while I pulled on a pair of shorts and a tank top, then grabbed one of the hotel’s complimentary plush white towels.  Mila and I met at the elevator and rode down together.

How’s he doing?” I asked.

Sleeping,” Mila said.  “Sort of.  He’s in and out.”

Can you really do what you said?  Make a cast for his arm, I mean?”

Mila shrugged.  “It isn’t as hard as you’d think.  He probably isn’t going to be very happy about the process, but he’ll be okay.”

I nodded thoughtfully.  “You’re sure?”

Mila surprised me by reaching out to lay a comforting hand on my shoulder.  At least, I assumed that it was supposed to be comforting; when she squeezed, the pressure was intense enough that I almost winced in pain.  “He’ll be fine,” she said.  “You’ve got my word.”

That would have to do.  Worrying about Devlin was the sort of thing I could indulge him after I’d faced Virginia.  I’d need all of my wits if I wanted to find some narrative thread that explained the inexplicable events of the last few hours and I didn’t have all of my wits.  Any mental processing power I had left needed to be focused entirely on the upcoming conversation.

Few people availed themselves of the spa in the middle of the workday, thankfully.  I only undressed down to my underwear before wrapping myself in the towel.  Mila got completely naked.

Really?” I asked her. 

Mila smirked.  “It’s a spa.  It’s almost impossible to sneak anything into one of these, anyway.”

She didn’t seem at all self-conscious about her body, which wasn’t surprising.  There were numerous scars up and down the length of her torso, in a colorful variety of shapes and sizes.  A long, thin line underneath her ribs looked like a knife wound.  Near her collarbone, a puckered bit of skin reminded me of a bullet hole.  The skin on her back was wrinkled and discolored; it took me a moment to realize that she’d probably incurred that injury in London, after the warehouse had literally exploded.

Mila noticed me examining her and paused in the process of putting on her towel.  “I got used to them,” she said.

Used to…what?”

The scars,” Mila said.  “I got used to them.  Didn’t really have much of a choice.”

I pointed at a tiny ring of blackened flesh on her forearm that I’d never noticed before.  It looked like a cigarette burn.  “Is that from…?”

Mila shrunk slightly into herself.  It was strange, unfitting behavior from the typically unflappable woman. “Aiden did this to me.  He wanted to make sure I could handle the pain.”  She spoke in a flat, utterly emotionless voice.

The more I learned about Aiden – and it wasn’t as though Mila had told us all that much about him – the more I found myself wishing that Michel had backed the car over him and finished the job.  Our interactions with him, coupled with the abject terror Mila displayed whenever he’d appeared, had clearly demonstrated his capacity for violence. But I hadn’t previously considered how cruel and needlessly petty the mercenary might be.

Mila wrapped the towel around herself.  “Anyway.  Trust me: I’ve dealt with injuries and I know Devlin is going to be okay.”

A question formulated in my thoughts: what else had Aiden subjected Mila, in order to test her endurance?  But, before I could voice that question, I realized that I didn’t want to know the answer.  Whatever trauma Mila had endured earlier in her life had forged her into the person in front of me.  I just had no desire whatsoever to plumb those historical depths.

Virginia waited for us inside one of the private saunas.  She was lounging on one of the benches, barely visible through the rising steam, with her eyes closed in thought.  One eye opened as we entered and closed the door behind us.

Feeling better?” Virginia asked, from her reclined position.

I’m not feeling worse,” I said.  “You said you wanted to talk?”

Virginia sat up and indicated the empty space next to her.  I took a seat closer to her, but still out of arm’s reach, and Mila sat down nearer to the door. 

When your grandfather and I started our business,” Virginia said, “there were a lot of people looking for us to fail.  Not just the old guard who didn’t want anyone looking like us to succeed; even some of our old friends tried to mess things up before they could really get going.  The way they saw it, we were getting ahead of ourselves, making waves and bringing a lot of attention down on everyone else.”

I’d been preparing myself for a dozen different conversations, and none of them had included a history lesson.  “Where are you going with this?” I asked.

She shushed me with a finger to her lips.  “I’m going somewhere; just calm down and let me get there.”

I leaned back, closed my eyes, and gestured for her to continue.  If she was talking, that meant she wasn’t asking questions that I couldn’t answer.  It also meant I could allow my mind to drift away in the hot, humid room. 

It got so bad that we realized the only way we could make it is we kept everything to ourselves.  No outsiders involved, beyond what was absolutely necessary.  We had to cut off a lot of people and keep secrets from a lot more.”  Virginia sighed wistfully.  “It wasn’t easy, but we did it.  Somehow.  It bothered your grandfather more than me, obviously – it was his family that lived in that part of Georgia – but we got through it. Together.”

Ezekiel’s side of the family – the original Fords – had been slaves and sharecroppers in Atlanta, going back…well, as far back as they could trace their lineage.  When he and my grandmother had started their business, the rest of his family had doubled down on their history and focused on their blue collar, backbreaking labor.  It had turned out fine for most branches of the tree – there was nothing inherently wrong with physical labor, and there was always a market for it – but Ezekiel and Virginia had ascended to stratospheric heights, leaving the rest of them behind.

I know all of this,” I said, when it seemed like Virginia was done speaking.  “I’ve been to the same family reunions as you.  What’s your point?”

My point,” Virginia said, “is that I understand lying, if it what’s you and yours need to do. Whatever mess you’re in is a lot bigger than you’re telling me.  I know that.  And you’ve got your own reasons for keeping it to yourself.  Same as your bodyguard here and your husband.”

Reflexively, I started to protest to the title.  Devlin was my ex-husband, and had been for some time.  It took me a moment to remember that, as far as Virginia was concerned, I was married to Michel.

Virginia was still talking.  “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” she said.  “You keep your secrets and I won’t pry.  Or I won’t pry much, at least.  But you just know that I’m on your side, Sarah.  You can tell me the truth or you can keep it to yourself; whatever you do, I’ll be in your corner.  Alright?”

I nodded, without opening my eyes.

Just one question,” Virginia added.  “What’ll happen if you don’t…fix whatever this problem is?”

They’ll kill us,” I said, completely without intending to.  My eyes snapped open as soon as the words left my mouth.  In the warmth and comfort of the sauna, my thoughts drifting aimlessly around in my head, I’d allowed my guard to drop.

Virginia eyes widened slightly and she raised a hand to her mouth.  Then, shockingly, she nodded one time.  It was a decisive action and, age be damned, she looked exactly as she had during my childhood: commanding and decisive, ready to tackle the titans of industry on their own terms and emerge victorious.

Well, okay then.  Whenever you’re ready to talk about it, whenever you’re ready to let someone else in on whatever you’ve got going on in your head…you just let me know.  Until then, I’ll help as much as I can.”

She needed to get out of this business.  Every moment she stayed involved raised the potential threat level.  In Atlanta, there had only been hired goons.  Now, there were assassins and hitmen.  How much more could this possibly escalate before we messed up and paid the price for failure?  How many people could I, in good conscience, allow to throw themselves over a cliff to save me?

But Virginia wasn’t asking for permission to help.  She wasn’t expressing an interest or stating an intention to assist.  Virginia Ford was declaring, with no room for equivocation, that she would support me in whatever came next.  Without any knowledge as to why I found myself in this deadly game, my grandmother was unflinchingly standing by me. 

I wasn’t sure if the moisture on my cheeks was from condensing steam or tears, but I was glad for the concealing clouds of mist either way.

Virginia stood up from the bench and stretched.  “You’re going to get that list of supplies to CJ?”

Michel already has it,” Mila said.

I’ll talk to CJ, then, and those two can go pick up whatever you need.”  Virginia turned to me.  “You remember what I said, alright?”

I blinked back moisture and cleared my throat before answering.  “I will.”

Virginia nodded to herself and exited, leaving Mila and I alone in the sauna.

You know,” Mila said after an appreciable stretch of silence, “she’s not what I expected.”

The Virginia Ford that I’d grown up with and the woman who’d just declared her support for an unknown cause shared an iron, unflinching will.  That much was obvious.  She looked the same, spoke the same, and occasionally even acted the same, but it was that will that resonated the most with me.  It was enough that her wildly different personality and her completely different priorities seemed like affectations to a woman whose layers I hadn’t yet begun to glimpse.  She wasn’t a different person, so much as she was deeper.     

You know what?” I asked.  “She’s not what I expected, either.”

 

Chapter 81

There were serious logistical problems to work out, first of all. Assassins were out on the streets, ruthlessly hunting Barrett down, and they’d already shown themselves willing to operate in full view of witnesses. At any point, someone could just execute him on the sidewalk, if they were so inclined. He’d obviously managed to survive on his own for a while, but that didn’t mean he’d always be alright. With the added stress of our upcoming false flag, we couldn’t afford to run any unnecessary risks. Barrett’s untimely demise or injury would qualify as a risk.

At the same time, we couldn’t take him with us. Virginia and CJ were, as far as Barrett knew, unaware of my illicit activities. I had no choice but to work with him, but I wasn’t going to introduce any more criminal elements into my grandmother’s life if I could avoid it. Barrett wasn’t the sort of element I wanted around my family, for one thing; for another, I didn’t want to push my grandmother’s tolerance too far. She knew that I’d gotten in over my head, even if she didn’t know how far; she was aware that I skirted the law, but not that I’d outright shattered it on multiple occasions. Giving her another string to pull on might be all she needed to unravel the entire web of lies I’d constructed around her.

Barrett, thankfully, solved that problem for us. “Before I came down here, I went ahead and booked several rooms under fake names,” he said.

I thought you weren’t planning on staying?” Mila asked.

I wasn’t,” Barrett said. “But I wanted to see if any of those identities were burned.”

Trying to figure out what’s blown and what isn’t,” Mila said. “Anyone shows up at a hotel, you know not to use that name anymore. Clever.”

I couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d explained that out loud for my benefit, but I stepped on the urge to be vocally indignant. What would the point be? What would happen, aside from wasting time we couldn’t afford to waste?

I knew that, you know,” I said anyway.

Mila raised an eyebrow and said nothing in response. With greater effort, and a commensurately greater level of success, I kept myself from attempting to read anything from her neutral expression.

Frustrated with Mila, but unable to find an avenue with which to express that frustration, I turned my attention to Barrett. “You could have said something about those hotels earlier. We might not have gotten hit on the way to the Lumen.”

Barrett shrugged, undisturbed by my tone. “I wasn’t planning on staying anywhere you guys stashed me. Didn’t really see a reason to give up more about my plans than I absolutely had to.”

You were what?”

I was leaving town,” Barrett explained. “You, your partner, and the driver are all lovely people, I’m sure. But what kind of an idiot would I have to be to stay somewhere where I know there are killers gunning for me?”

It wouldn’t have really been a betrayal. Barrett had answered our questions easily enough. He wasn’t part of our team and we weren’t paying him. Fleeing at the first opportunity was the smart play. It’s what I would have advised, if it had been Devlin and me in a similar situation.

But it still felt…wrong? Unfair? A part of me had just assumed that Barrett would adhere to some unspoken agreement. Another part of me, quieter but no less insistent, felt that his departure would leave a lot of unanswered questions floating around in my mind. A third part whispered something in the recesses of my mind, but its voice was too soft for me to distinctly make out.

If you’d left, who’s to say you wouldn’t have another killer to add to the list?” Mila asked.

Barrett flashed a grin at her. “No offense intended, of course. I’m sure you’re perfectly deadly. But you’re their muscle, aren’t you? You wouldn’t abandon that just to chase down one little ole jewel thief, would you?”

Mila increased the intensity of her glare, to no effect. When that failed, she took a steadying breath and looked at me. “How are we getting out of here? Just because those detectives are giving us a pass for the moment, that doesn’t make me any more comfortable about standing around in the open like this.”

Until she’d brought it up, I’d been allowing myself to focus on the immediate situation: Devlin’s injuries, what it meant for our time in Texas, how we would function in the future with our primary thief incapacitated, and other things like that. But, now that Mila had mentioned our lack of cover, I couldn’t help but notice how many tall buildings there were up and down the street ahead of us. Each of those buildings had a countless number of darkened windows. And any of the rooms behind those windows could have hidden a sniper, carefully aiming at one of us through a telescopic lens.

Barrett was their target, sure. But, without any knowledge as to why they wanted him dead, how was I to know that the simple act of associating with him wouldn’t put us all in their crosshairs? For that matter, how was I to know if associating with us wasn’t putting him at greater risk?

I couldn’t worry about that. He’d become a criminal of his own accord, presumably with full knowledge of the risks. I couldn’t allow myself to get bogged down with concern for what other adults did with their time. We had more than enough on our plate without looking for additional baggage.

We need a car,” I said. “The shooters took out the tires on the truck. Even if they hadn’t, I still wouldn’t want to drive around town.”

Mila nodded. “Good thinking. Michel? Anything to add?”

Michel pushed himself off of the curb and stroked his chin in thought. “Something that does not stand out would be good.”

The truck didn’t stand out,” I said. As I spoke, a massive lifted truck rolled by. “At least, not here.”

The only mechanic I knew in Dallas got out of the business a few years back,” Mila said. “If he was still working, he could probably get us something with reinforcement, in case these assassins try the same trick twice.”

Something told me that wasn’t likely. In less than an hour, we’d weathered a covert attack, complete with disguises, and an open midday assault. Neither tactic had worked. In the future, I suspected that the assassins would try some new method that we hadn’t yet considered. Still, it was just good strategy to protect ourselves on the off chance that they got lazy.

If wishes were fishes,” I said. “For the moment, we need to focus on getting some sort of car and getting out of here as soon as possible. Even if no one else takes a shot at us, I can’t be seen here.”

Worried about your reputation?” Barrett asked. I could practically hear the cocky smirk in his voice.

It’s not that,” I said. “But if word gets out that I, personally, was in a car accident, you can bet that -”

Before I finished the sentence, I heard a commotion coming from the direction of the officers. They’d clustered together, by Devlin and the EMTs, to discuss what steps they should take next. As a single unit, they all turned to face someone approaching and then, also as a unit, took a collective step back.

Virginia’s voice carried through the air. “If you don’t let me see my granddaughter,” she said, “I will personally make sure that each and every one of you spends the rest of your career cleaning up cow patties in whatever backwater hole you people consider civilization.”

You can bet that Virginia’s going to make a special trip out to see what happened,” I finished.

Internally, I died a little. There went any chance of keeping Barrett away from my grandmother. I might possibly be able to minimize their contact. Maybe. But I didn’t hold out a lot hope for that.

You’re kind of having a bad day, aren’t you?” Barrett asked.

I summoned a glare sharp enough to pierce steel and sent it his way. “Oh, shut up.”

Thankfully, he shut up.

The officers and EMTs only stood in Virginia’s way for a few seconds before they fell back and parted. I couldn’t blame them. On a good day, Virginia had a strong, persuasive personality. When she was pissed off and determined, denying her anything she wanted was like trying to stop a freight train with sharp sticks and strong words.

She spotted me clustered by the curb and rushed over. CJ, unsurprisingly, followed in her wake after giving the officers some quick apologies. “Sarah! Sarah, are you okay?”

Don’t say anything,” I whispered to Barrett. Then, I took a deep breath and stepped forward to meet Virginia halfway. “I’m fine, I’m fine. What are you doing here?”

Are you serious?” Virginia asked. “As soon as I heard about what happened, of course I hurried over. What else is a grandmother supposed to do?”

There really wasn’t much a grandmother could do, when her granddaughter was facing kill squads, but I decided not to bring that up. There was no reason to stoke her justified concern even higher than it already was.

Well,” I said, “there’s nothing to worry about. We’re all fine.”

Virginia looked around the area. “Where’s your friend? Your…what was he, your business partner?”

Devlin, you mean?”

He’s by the ambulance, ma’am,” CJ said, before I could come up with a more delicate phrasing. “It looks like he broke his arm.”

Everyone’s fine?” Virginia asked me, arching her eyebrow until it looked like an apostrophe.

Devlin’s arm was a…pre-existing condition,” I said. “The car accident made it worse, but it wasn’t responsible.”

As far as I knew, at least, that was correct. Thinking about the injury made me wonder how many other minor aches and pains he’d accrued over the past few months. Jesus, Mila’s body must be a mass of bruises and fractured bones. How could I not have noticed?

Virginia looked past me, at Barrett who had returned to joking around with Michel, and somehow found a way to raise her eyebrow even further. She stepped closer and lowered her voice. “And the shooting? Was that related to your…situation?”

How much information had she been able to gather? And how? “I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I don’t think so, though.”

Who’s the new guy?”

I don’t know that, either,” I admitted. “His name is Barrett, though. I think.”

You think?”

I shrugged helplessly. “My life is very strange lately, Virginia. I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”

If my nerves weren’t frayed to the point of snapping by the assassins’ sudden arrival, I probably wouldn’t have been so open with Virginia. As it was, I could barely muster the mental self-control to keep the truly volatile secrets from spilling out.

I wasn’t worried about her reading too much into my sudden willingness to share. Even with the scant amount Virginia knew about my life now, exhaustion and mental fatigue were reasonable symptoms. If push came to shove, I could always plead confusion in the wake of the car accident and use that to cover up for any accidental slips.

Virginia tilted her head, examining me for several seconds, before she came to a conclusion. “You need to get some rest,” she said, modulating her tone down into a warmer, more comforting register. “You and your friends look worn out.”

I’d been trying to conceal how tired I felt, but apparently hadn’t done a good job of it. Virgini had known me since my childhood, though. If there was anyone on the planet capable of ascertaining my mood, outside of potentially Devlin, it was her.

You have no idea,” I said.

Is your, uh…new friend going to coming with us?”

I shook my head. “I think he has his own arrangements in town. How did you and CJ get here?”

We borrowed one of the company cars,” Virginia said.

For some reason, that possibility hadn’t occurred to me. While the Ford company wasn’t strongly based in Dallas, we had subsidiaries and LLCs in town. Virginia would, of course, be capable of requisitioning whatever she wanted whenever she wanted to. In fact, that was probably a better way of getting a vehicle. There’d be no paper trail and anyone involved wouldn’t think twice about it.

Let me get the others,” I said, turning to walk back over to my friends. I paused after a step and looked over my shoulder. “And Virginia? Thanks for coming.”

My grandmother smiled back at me and the warmth in that expression was like sunrise cresting over the horizon. I felt a smile appear on my own face in response.

When I returned to the curb, Mila was busily patting herself down. She glanced up, then cocked an eyebrow in Virginia’s direction. “What’s going on?”

We’ve got a ride,” I said. “So there’s that, at least. Barrett, I’m not going to ask where you’re staying in town.”

Good,” Barrett said. “I’d hate to lie to you. Again.”

I ignored that. “But if we’re going to be working together while we’re in town, I need some way of contacting you. I’m not going to just cross my fingers and hope to run into you when the time comes.”

Barrett fished his wallet out of a pocket, flipped it open, and removed a business card. An actual business card, complete with a stylized bear claw and his first name written in raised, embossed lettering. Underneath the name, there was a phone number and an email address.

That’s how people usually get in touch,” he said.

I stared at the card, dumbstruck by the audacity. “You…you have a card?”

I’m a professional contractor,” Barrett replied. “And I work by reputation. How else am I supposed to get the word out about my services?”

My eyes found Mila’s. She lifted one shoulder a few millimeters. “I gave up on anything making sense a long time ago,” she said. “Don’t look at me for explanations.”

I might have pressed the issue farther if the EMTs hadn’t drawn close enough that they might be able to hear the conversation. They introduced themselves politely enough and expressed their medical opinion, regarding Devlin’s condition. The arm was broken in at least two places, but the breaks had been relatively clean. Even if he followed all of the recommendations and luck was on his side, he was still looking at at least a month and a half before returning to his full capabilities. More likely, he’d been out of commission for two, maybe three months, and there was a serious chance that he wouldn’t ever return to one hundred percent.

Devlin wasn’t a very physical person. As long as his fingers still worked and his brain was unaffected, I knew that he’d deal well with the possibility of permanent skeletal impairment. I, on the other hand, would not deal well with it all. In the time since we’d been conscripted by the Lady, my team had dealt with situations far above and beyond anything I’d ever imagined. With Devlin calling the shots in the field, we’d emerged from every one of those problems successful and unharmed. I’d been in the field for less than a handful of occasions and we already had a casualty.

Academically, I knew that my commands in the field hadn’t been responsible for Devlin falling in the warehouse, or for the struggle against the assassin, or the car crash. This time, our adversary knew we existed and was taking steps to eliminate us as a threat. That was different from our previous jobs, when we’d struck from ambush and used surprise and uncertainty as potent weapons. Emotionally, though…emotionally, I couldn’t shake a sense of guilt so tangible that it made my stomach turn.

One of the EMTs cleared his throat. “Ma’am?”

I snapped my attention back to the conversation. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Your friend is barely conscious, but he’s refusing to go to the hospital. We can put him back to sleep and take him, but you’re listed as his emergency contact and we’re supposed to check with you before we do anything.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw Barrett’s and Mila’s eyebrows go up, almost in unison. To the best of my ability, I ignored them and thought furiously. Devlin was a wanted man in several countries, to varying degrees. I was fairly certain that any jobs we’d undertaken in America were past the statute of limitations, but I wouldn’t swear to that. Putting his fingerprints into the system could only lead to more trouble down the line.

Using on my eyes, I tried to convey that message to Mila. She nodded and stepped forward. “We’ve got our own doctors,” she said.

Internally, I wondered if Mila actually knew doctors in the area. Externally, I just nodded to show my agreement. “It’s better for everyone that we just move on from this,” I said. “Without having to get the Ford family involved in anything official. You understand, don’t you?”

Virginia was better at portraying authority and I couldn’t be sure if my weak attempt would actually keep the EMTs from mentioning my involvement on any official documents. There was almost no way to keep them from spreading the stories amongst their friends. I simply had to accept that and hope that any whispers wouldn’t reach interested parties.

The EMTs, after only a token resistance, yielded. They brought Devlin over and, with Mila under one of his arms, we managed to get him out of the gurney. Bleary-eyed, barely aware of his surroundings, Devlin gave Barrett a foul look and attempted to say something unintelligible.

I’m going to take that as a compliment,” Barrett said. He turned to me. “I think I’ve been around here a bit too long. You’ve got my card; let me know when you come up with a plan.”

How do I know you’ll even be in town?” I asked.

You don’t,” he said, without the faintest hint of shame. “But you can trust that I’m not going to leave town without finding the time to say goodbye to you.”

Before I could form a response to that, Barrett touched two fingers to his forehead, dipped his head in a quick bow, and strolled casually away from the curb.

He is…unique,” Michel said eventually.

We’re unique,” I said. “He’s something else entirely.”

My thoughts began to wander, questions about Barrett’s past and his involvement in the unfolding drama drifting through the confused haze of exhaustion and overstimulation. Mila snapped her fingers in front of my face again before I could get too lost in my own head.

Your grandmother? Where’s she at?”

I shook my head several times, focusing intently on the moment. I needed sleep. I needed a bath and a change of clothes. Devlin needed to get off of his feet. And we all needed to get out of the street, where any passer-by could turn out to be another assassin looking for an easy shot.

Answers about Barrett could wait.

I got underneath Devlin’s other arm, so that Mila and I shared his weight, and we made our way over to Virginia’s waiting car: a non-descript black town car whose make I didn’t immediately recognize. We took the backseat, so that CJ and Virginia could sit in the front and pretend not to have a wealth of questions about Devlin’s injury.

The whole way back to our hotel, I barely thought about Barrett at all.

Chapter 80

The first officers on the scene wanted to immediately take us into custody. Anyone involved in a midday shootout had to be involved in some shady business, after all; good people just weren’t attacked by paramilitary teams at intersections. That was a fair assessment, in fairness. It was hardly their fault that, for once, we actually hadn’t done anything to warrant the attention of any nefarious gunmen in the area.

The second wave of police – detectives, with the rank to bulldoze over the uniformed officers – arrived shortly after the first. One of the detectives recognized me from a distance, judging from the way he pulled aside his cohort and whispered fiercely into his ear. When the detectives drew close enough to speak to us, their tones were downright deferential. To them, good people generally weren’t attacked in full view of a dozen witnesses…but, when the target was a member of the Ford family, different rules were in play.

With barely a word from us, the detectives somehow came to the conclusion that the attack had been the result of a kidnapping attempt gone horribly wrong. When they found one of Mila’s handguns – Barrett had done something to make the other one disappear while I hadn’t been paying attention – both detectives exchanged a look, unsure how to proceed, and ultimately decided it would be better not to ask too many questions.

While they went through the whole song-and-dance routine, EMS arrived and took Devlin into their care. I could see them working on his arm if the police moved in the right direction and I squinted at the proper moment. Whatever was wrong with him wasn’t serious enough to warrant panic on the part of the EMTs, but they were certainly working at a determined pace. He’d been given a stronger painkiller than natural endorphins almost as soon as the authorities arrived, which was nice. I didn’t know how much longer I could have born the look of silent agony on his face while he tried to keep the extent of his pain from us.

Ma’am?” One of the detectives paused in the act of jotting down notes and tapped his pen against his notebook. I blinked and turned my focus back to him. “Can you think of anything else that might explain what happened here today?”

I shook my head. “I’m just here on business,” I said, “but I don’t know what I could have done to deserve this sort of thing. It’s just so…so…”

I pretended to tear up, allowing my emotions to choke off my voice. It wasn’t as though the panic and fear were very far from the surface.

She’s had a bad day,” Mila said, stepping in between me and the detectives. Her body language was technically neutral, even if the act of blocking the police with her body was a naturally aggressive move. “I think she’s answered enough questions for today, don’t you?”

Allowing some more of my suppressed emotion to the surface was almost too easy. Tears sprang into my eyes. I turned away from the police. Michel and Barrett both took steps forward, but Barrett was closer. He wrapped me into am embrace, hiding my face in his broad chest while I pretended to weep softly.

Not bad,” he muttered in a voice meant only for my ears. “A little melodramatic, but not bad.”

I lightened up on the tears. Just because our attempts to find and question Barrett were directly responsible for our current predicament, that didn’t mean I should start ignoring good advice from people with more experience in the field.

We will see to it that she gets back to her hotel safely,” Michel said. I couldn’t see him with my face in Barrett’s shirt, but even I could hear that Michel sounded irritated. Whether that irritation was directed at me, at the police, or at Barrett for intercepting a hug was beyond my ability to discern.

I pulled back after an appreciable and respectful amount of time and cleared my throat. “What about my coworker?”

Coworker, ma’am?” The second detective asked.

When I indicated Devlin, the detectives shrugged almost in unison. The first detective answered for the both of them. “He’ll be fine in a couple of weeks. EMTs said that repeated stress weakened the bone and then he suffered a pretty bad break when you got hit. It wasn’t anything he can’t get over, though.”

Hopefully,” the second detective said.

The first detective shot his partner a dirty look. “They’ll know more about the details than I do,” he said. “Besides, I’m not entirely sure we’re even supposed to be giving out medical information like that.”

I made a show of composing myself. Then, with head held high, I tried to channel my grandmother’s haughty attitude of self-assurance. “I will go to speak with them, then. If you’ll excuse me?”

It was obvious that both detectives; the uniformed officers, now wandering aimlessly around the scene and muttering darkly to each other; and to any sane person who might have witnessed the whole thing that my team was up to our necks in something dirty. At the same time, no one seemed willing to make the first move.

Falsely imprisoning a Ford, no matter where he or she happened to be, was the kind of thing that ended careers. Lots of careers, depending on how vindictive the Ford in question was feeling. As far as any officers working a beat were concerned, it was much better practice to err on the side of the heiress.

I didn’t stick around for them to make another decision. While everyone involved exchanged tense looks, I found my way through the bodies until I was standing next to Devlin. The EMTs had retreated a distance to search for something in the ambulance’s rear compartment, leaving Devlin and me with just enough space to talk freely as long as we didn’t raise our voices.

Bad news,” I said. “You’re only going to get a few weeks off of work.”

Devlin gave me a weak smile. “If this is all it takes to get a break, I would’ve broken my own arm a while ago.”

Cops said something about repeated injuries. Anything you want to tell me?”

Nothing new,” Devlin said, shrugging with one shoulder as delicately as possible. “Things have just been a bit more physical than normal lately.”

While I hadn’t been actively paying attention, it made sense when Devlin put it like that. Since Tangier, he’d taken repeated hits to the same arm . Individually, each impact had probably only added a hairline crack or fracture. Collected together alongside the massive trauma of a car crash, it wasn’t surprising that the forearm had simply given out entirely.

Why didn’t you tell anyone?” I asked. “We could’ve taken some time off for you to heal up.”

He chuckled. The sound was raspy and dry, but not without some barely audible genuine amusement. “When? Haven’t had a lot of chances to catch our breath, have we?”

I started to protest, but stopped myself when I ran through the timeline on my own. The Mouse’s harrying attacks on the Community had forced the individual members into a dangerous mindset. In order to stop them from committing suicide, I’d volunteered myself – and, by extension, my team – to bring him in from the cold. That had necessitated a last minute rush to Atlanta, where the Texan had spotted me and that had forced Devlin and me into a hasty ascent up the Sovereign. Then, when I’d attempted to meet the Mouse in person, I’d walked straight into a trap which put our backs even more against the wall than they’d already been.

In a very real way, Devlin’s arm had been badly broken because of hasty choices I’d made without thinking about the possible consequences or allowing us appropriate time to plan.

I’m…I’m sorry,” I said.

It took him several moments to do it, but Devlin managed to shake his head. “Not your fault.” He took a slow breath, visibly straining to pull his thoughts back into a cohesive whole despite the influence of whatever painkillers they’d given him. “What now?”

You’re going to stop hurting that arm,” I said immediately. “That’s the first thing.”

Not about me. What about the Texan?”

A part of me realized that our false flag attack was dead in the water now. Mila was distinctive and had a tendency to end her problems with violence, whenever Devlin wasn’t there to rein her in. Michel was enthusiastic, but inexperienced. And I was…if not crippled without my computers, then certainly handicapped. Devlin’s ground level expertise with stealth infiltration would have been instrumental in pulling off what we had in mind. With his arm broken, though, that option went right out the window.

Don’t worry about that,” I said. I reached out to squeeze his hand. “We’ll figure something out.”

Devlin nodded slowly and opened his mouth. I waited for him to speak, but no words passed his lips. After another moment or two, his breathing steadied out and he began snoring. The drugs must have fully sunk their claws into him.

When the EMTs returned, I pulled one aside and confirmed my own suspicions about Devlin’s repeated injuries leading to a sort of critical mass within the bones of his arm. Then, after slipping the man a hundred dollar bill, I intimated that Devlin might be better off sleeping for the foreseeable future.

He wouldn’t like what the rest of the team and I had to do next.

By the time I returned to the rest of my team, they’d all assumed casual positions in the bark. I gestured for Mila to come back and turned to Michel, who’d chosen a picnic table less than a yard away from me.

We’re going to have to do this without him,” I said to Michel.

Michel didn’t need to ask who I was referring to. “Can we?”

I was stealing from the corrupt foundations when I was 19. Ex-Mossad agents, KGB officers following me around, the whole nine.” I paused, gathered my thoughts, and continued. “I’ve done a lot of things without him. This’ll just have to go on the list.”

That’ll be something to see,” Mila said as she approached. “Unless you were planning on just killing everyone who gets in our way. Which is an option.”

No, Mila,” I said, allowing my exasperation to fill my voice, “that is not an option.”

What then? I’ve seen breaks like the one Devlin’s got; he won’t be joining us on anything in the field for a while.”

I gave her a significant look, willing her to understand my meaning without me actually having to speak my terrible idea out loud. She still seemed confused after a few seconds, so I gave her a hand by flicking my eyes to the left. She followed my gaze. When her eyebrows went up and her mouth made a little ‘o’ of surprise, I knew that she’d figured it out.

Do you think he even will?” Mila asked. “He was planning to get out of town earlier.”

He owes us,” I said. “That’s a good start for negotiations. We might have to pay him for the work, though.”

With what money? You can’t access your accounts.”

I blew out a frustrated breath. “We can figure something out. Probably. Hopefully. I don’t know, but it’s better than doing nothing, isn’t it?”

Mila considered our prospects in silence for what seemed like an eternity. “Let’s see what he says, I guess.”

The two of us walked over to join Michel and Barrett, chatting with each other on the curb. Neither man could possibly have met the other earlier, but they seemed like old friends. Michel made a joke and Barrett laughed heartily at it, slapping the Frenchman on the back. They looked up as Mila and I approached.

So,” Barrett said, “you’re a Ford.”

It wasn’t a question. He’d been close enough during the street-side interrogation to know most of what they’d said.

Everyone’s got a family,” I said. “That doesn’t define who I am.”

I can only imagine,” he said. “Something tells me that the illustrious Ford family wouldn’t approve of their daughter sneaking around in the dead of night or dodging gunfire in the middle of the day.”

Virginia might actually approve of that, if she had the full context for my activities. Mom and Dad would be apoplectic. I didn’t even want to know what hell my sister, in her pristine superiority, would summon if even one of my traffic tickets ever came to light.

I’m hoping that I don’t have to find out what their thoughts on the matter are,” I said. I prepared to offer him as much money as necessary to buy his silence. I had no idea how I might actually get that money, but that point was only a minor factor.

Nothing,” he said. “No charge at all.”

I stared at him for a long time, waiting for him to change his answer and throw out some absurd number. That moment never came.

Why?” I asked finally.

I’m not in the market of spreading other people’s secrets,” Barrett said. “Besides, no one would believe me anyway. Sarah Ford, sneaking into buildings and getting into shootouts on Main Street? Sounds too insane to be true.”

I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or relieved at that assessment. On the one hand, the name of Irene Adler did serve up terror to anyone stupid enough to attack my systems. On the other, Sarah Ford was nothing more than a socialite whose main claim to fame was her family connections.

Was it insane for Sarah to masquerade as Irene? Probably. But the list of therapist discussion topics was growing too long and I couldn’t focus on that right now.

How’s your partner?” Barrett asked abruptly.

Unconscious,” I said.

Barrett nodded. “Breaks like that can be a pain, no pun intended. Good thing they don’t think it’s permanent, though.”

I took a deep breath. “Just because he’ll heal doesn’t mean we don’t have problems,” I said. “How badly do you need to get out of town?”

Well, let’s see.” Barrett held up both hands and started counting off points as he talked. “Someone’s been trying to kill me for a while now and they know where I am. They’ve taken two very credible attempts at my life in the last hour or so, and there’s really no way to know if there is someone waiting in the wings for attempt number three. The police are now involved, so anything I do in town is going to be watched with a lot more scrutiny than normal.”

So…very badly?”

Barrett chuckled. “Yeah. You could say I need to get out of here very badly. Except now I’m not sure if I can even take a plane. That’s exactly where I’d station some men, if I were trying to take care of a loose end.”

Well,” I said, “if you’re still going to be here for another day, I might have an offer for you.”

Barrett raised his eyebrows and motioned for me to continue.

I think I know who hired you,” I said. “And there might be a way for us to get the information you were promised.”

Barrett grasped my meaning almost immediately. “They’re starting gunfights in broad daylight and you want to rob their boss?”

Not exactly,” I said. Then, after a pregnant moment, I sighed. “Actually, yes: exactly that. But we’re not going to go in blind, so -”

I’m in,” Barrett said. “Let’s do it.”

I blinked. “Just like that?”

Just like that” Barrett spread his arms, palms up. “If I start letting people back out of payment without reprisal, I’m going to have some serious problems in the future. Besides, I can’t help but think that any opportunity to work with someone as beautiful as you is worth whatever risk is necessary.”

So cheesy, yet so effective. Warmth flooded into my cheeks and I had to take a moment to force down any girlish giggles. It had been a long time, apparently.

Keep it in your pants,” Mila said. “This is a one-time arrangement. We need you to help with the infiltration and to follow our instructions. Do that, and we’re good.”

And if I don’t?”

Mila answered that question with a feral smile that showed too many teeth.

Fair enough,” Barrett said. “When do we get started?”